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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Front & Center: Whitworth economist speaks from experience

VAnge Ocasio Hochheimer is an associate professor of economics at Whitworth University. She was recently named to the Washington State Department of Commerce Community Economic Revitalization Board. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil For The Spokesman-Review

Most economists discuss homelessness from a statistical perspective.

Vange Ocasio Hochheimer speaks from firsthand experience.

As a teen growing up in the Bronx, she became homeless when her mother abruptly returned to Puerto Rico.

A neighbor took her in until Ocasio Hochheimer was able to rent a tiny room.

“I was working and going to high school, and I remember walking from the subway station through a very bad part of town with a hoodie thrown over my head because I did not want to see all the drugs and prostitution around me.”

The experience taught her that someone can end up homeless through no fault of their own. It also taught her resilience.

Today, Ocasio Hochheimer is an associate professor of economics at Whitworth University. Recently, she was named to the Washington State Department of Commerce Community Economic Revitalization Board.

And Wednesday morning, she will be a panel member at Greater Spokane Incorporated’s 2020 Economic Forecast event at the Spokane Convention Center.

During a recent interview, Ocasio Hochheimer discussed gold medals, mentoring and navigating a male-dominated profession.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

V.O.H.: I was born in the U.S. From age 3 to about 12, I lived in a small community in Puerto Rico. Then I came back to the United States – the Bronx.

S-R: Did you experience culture shock?

V.O.H.: It was different. There was more violence than I was used to – gangs and bullying. And I stood out a bit because I was not New York enough – more of a clean-cut Christian girl. But I wanted to go to high school in America, so I was willing to navigate what was a tough environment, and it didn’t take me long to adapt. I already knew how to speak and write English, having read English novels growing up.

S-R: What was your first job?

V.O.H.: When I was 14, I worked in a sneakers store near Fordham University in the Bronx. That was a great experience.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class or activity in high school?

V.O.H.: I liked accounting, believe it or not. I was good with numbers. And I liked art – drawing. I won the gold medal for art at graduation. But growing up in a modest household, I was told I needed to get a career that would pay me back, and art may not have monetary returns. I was thinking I’d become a lawyer or an accountant. Economics was never in the picture.

S-R: What college did you attend?

V.O.H.: Binghamton University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-law – a combination of philosophy, politics and law.

S-R: Then what?

V.O.H.: I realized I didn’t want to be a practicing lawyer and decided to explore other possibilities. I worked at a travel agency and a five-star hotel in Manhattan for a short time, then got an entry-level job in the marketing department of an investment bank. That’s what really opened my eyes for what I wanted to do.

S-R: How so?

V.O.H.: The CFO at the investment bank – the number two at the company – saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself and encouraged me to go to graduate school. “So many doors will open for you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” So I applied to the master’s in economics program at Colorado State University.

S-R: Once you focused on economics, did you encounter either encouragement or resistance because of your gender?

V.O.H.: I would say both. I started out with a male faculty adviser. When he got a book deal, I switched to a female faculty adviser who had a very different perspective – very nurturing, very encouraging. She made sure I was successful.

S-R: Where did you go next?

V.O.H.: I got a teaching and research fellowship at Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore. When I was about to finish my doctorate, I accepted a full-time faculty position at the University of Denver, and was there two years.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane?

V.O.H.: My husband, Manny Hochheimer, was born in Germany and grew up in Colorado. And we both love the outdoors. So when I started looking for another faculty position, we agreed it had to be in either Colorado, Washington or Portland. When I saw the opening at Whitworth, I applied and was hired.

S-R: Your husband is a banker – currently Numerica Credit Union’s assistant vice president of corporate and external relations. How did you, as a couple, decide which career got higher priority when it came to relocating?

V.O.H.: Banks are everywhere, so we figured he had more options. But it was a bit of a gamble because we were still in a recession. Initially, he had to take an investment banking position, which was a little outside what he was used to. A year later, he started with Numerica.

S-R: Given the career options afforded by your Ph.D. in economics, why did you choose academia?

V.O.H.: It’s easy to get turned off by the discipline of economics. But I think it’s one of the most awesome fields out there, and I saw an opportunity to inspire people. Just like the program Math is Cool, I knew I could make economics cool. I try to teach in a way that gets students super excited about the topic.

S-R: Is there anything from your experiences growing up – whether being bullied or selling sneakers – that you bring to the classroom?

V.O.H.: One lesson is encouraging students to be confident, resilient and lifelong learners. Instead of relying on others to tell them what’s right or wrong, they should do the research and decide for themselves.

S-R: Have you ever been bullied since high school?

V.O.H.: I would say yes. As a woman in a male-dominated field, I sometimes encounter subtle bullying when people assume I’m not qualified.

S-R: How do you react?

V.O.H.: I was taught to concentrate on my goals and not react, so that type of subtle bullying doesn’t affect my inner core. I keep moving forward, focusing on things I can control.

S-R: Your mentor at the investment bank encouraged you to aim higher. Do you embrace that role now?

V.O.H.: Absolutely. Sometimes students in my class who are not economics majors eat up the material, and I’ll go, “You’re not going to be an engineer. You’re going to be an economist!” I helped a physics major get a fellowship at the American Institute for Economic Research, and he went on to a Ph.D. program in economics.

S-R: Homelessness was a central topic during the recent Spokane mayoral election. Given your expertise in economic revitalization, how would you tackle homelessness?

V.O.H.: To think that drugs are the root of homelessness is incorrect. Poverty happens first. Then hopelessness. Then homelessness. I never lost hope when I was homeless because I had a strong foundation and was goal-oriented. But someone who doesn’t have that strong foundation may not have the resilience to say, “This, too, shall pass.” They can become depressed, lose hope and self-medicate. I think providing a safety net for children is key – helping them grow up with a strong foundation and learn to fend for themselves instead of falling into a downward spiral.

S-R: Do you think Spokane’s homelessness crisis will get better or worse?

V.O.H.: As long as we focus on the wrong issues and criminalize homelessness, it will get worse. When we look at the homeless population, we’re looking at the end result. As a society, we need to look more at the root causes.

S-R: What role do you see for yourself on the state’s Community Economic Revitalization Board?

V.O.H.: My research is mostly on economic development in Third World countries – for example, how small loans in Bangladesh help villagers become entrepreneurs. The state board is a sort of think tank for allocating funds for similar projects, particularly in rural areas. One project they’re looking at is expanding broadband in tribal communities. This is a great way for me to apply my research locally.

S-R: What topic will you discuss at the 2020 Economic Forecast program?

V.O.H.: There are three panelists. One will do the national outlook, one will do the regional forecast, and I will focus on a local issue.

S-R: Which one?

V.O.H.: Education.

S-R: Where is the local economy today compared with when you arrived eight years ago, and where’s it headed?

V.O.H.: When I interviewed in 2011, I said to myself, “This place is going to be attractive in the future.” And it has grown. Many companies – Trader Joe’s, for instance – have established a presence here. One thing I’ll be talking about Wednesday is that if we can continue investing in ways that attract outside businesses and startups, we will continue to grow.

S-R: Is growth always a good thing?

V.O.H.: If you grow blindly, you can worsen pollution, traffic and a housing shortage. It has to be sustainable growth.

S-R: How do you achieve sustainable growth?

V.O.H.: We need to look at our education spending model. The overall dollar amount is not the key. You have to target spending where it’s going to get the highest return. We need to make sure our kids get a good education and that we nurture the local labor force of the future.

S-R: Do you and your husband discuss economics at home?

V.O.H.: All the time. And finance. All the time.

S-R: Do you agree?

V.O.H.: We have different approaches. I am a deep thinker. He’s a quick thinker.

And we’re very honest with each other, which means we often disagree. But I learned long ago how to walk away from a fight. (laugh)

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at