Class of 2012
One question central to Reginald Covington’s pursuit of knowledge is: “How did my mother manage to keep my family together on so little?“
“My parents got divorced when I was seven. My mother had three boys and it was very difficult for her,” says Covington ’12, a doctoral candidate in economics in the Graduate School. “Economics is the study of how people allocate scarce resources. My mother … she didn’t have a lot of time. She didn’t have a lot of money. So I was always interested in how she made decisions like, ‘Do I pay the rent or do I buy food?’ [and] ‘What do I do with the little money that I have?’”
Those questions and others were the foundation of Covington’s dissertation, “Essays on the Economic Consequences of Demographic and Family Change: The Cases of Teen Fatherhood and Marital Dissolution.”
“I was always interested in how relationships impact the mother, especially when there are children involved, and how relationships impact the children when it comes to education and health,” says the Florence, South Carolina, native. “That’s why much of my dissertation questions how marital separation impacts the education of the single mother. How does early fertility impact [educational] outcomes? It was something very personal to me, something I’ve seen in my life.”
“I’m not quite sure, to be honest, how [my mother] supported us,” he continues. “There were various social programs, my grandparents helped my mother a lot, our church was a huge help, and there was just a lot of prayer. I don’t know if she ever made enough money to really cover the expenses each month, but somehow, we made it.”
A double major in mathematics and economics at the University of Maryland, Covington wasn’t thinking of a career as an economist until he attended the American Economics Association’s summer program in 2005 at Duke University.
“I loved it,” he says. “I loved the atmosphere. I loved the rigor, and that pretty much set me on track to apply to PhD programs in economics during my senior year at Maryland,” he says.
Once he arrived at Cornell, Covington’s biggest challenge was adjusting to a graduate-student mentality.
“As a student, I was always able to read textbooks and apply knowledge from the textbooks to the exam. As a researcher, you have to come up with new ideas. So you go from reading someone else’s ideas to generating your own,” he says. “That was the most difficult part for me because I went from being in an undergrad program to a PhD program. Whereas other people get their masters first or work for a few years, I came straight from Maryland to Cornell.”
During his time at Cornell, Covington was a teaching assistant for three professors, and in 2011, he made presentations on his research at academic conferences at Cornell and Howard universities, the Population Association of America’s annual meeting, and the American Economic Association’s Pipeline Conference. A particularly satisfying experience was what he calls a privilege: working with his thesis advisor, H. Elizabeth Peters, professor of policy analysis and management, and now, the director of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C.
“She is a tremendous researcher … she’s an economic demographer, and it just so happens that her research fields align perfectly with mine,” says Covington. Peters shared her knowledge, supported Covington at various presentations, and helped his research funding.
One of the most significant experiences Covington had at Cornell was as a microeconomics lecturer at the Auburn Correctional Facility through the Cornell Prison Education Program.
“I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get to know men who don’t have a voice. I also saw it as a way to give back, to share what I’ve learned, and it was a great opportunity to teach a diverse group of individuals,” says Covington. “It was a challenge for me because I couldn’t make any assumptions about what they knew. They came from a broad range of backgrounds. There were some guys who knew a lot about economics and some who didn’t. There were guys with a math background as well. The experience challenged me, and it helped me to become a better instructor.”
Covington admits he was motivated to volunteer for the prison education program, in part, because as he grew up, he knew young men in Florence who ended up in prison.
“I knew young men who I felt were smarter than me … who had a lot going for them, and they were in a similar family structure or environment … but they ended up in prison, and I didn’t,” he says.
Even thoughCovington and his two brothers grew up in an environment that may have been impoverished, they wee raised in a highly structured and disciplined household.
“My mother often worked two jobs, so we had a lot of responsibility in the household. We had chores that we had to do, and there wasn’t any excuse for us not to do our homework,” he says. “There was accountability, there was discipline, and our mother was very firm and fair.”
“Sometimes I wake up, and I don’t understand how I got here. I couldn’t have planned this; I didn’t plan this,” says Covington. “A lot of people have steered me in the right direction, and I’ve been fortunate to be supported in the things I actually want to do. I’ve had a lot of help just getting here, and I do say that I can’t believe all this has happened.”
His mother is in awe as well. “She’s very proud,” Covington says.
As an economist, Covington wants to impact the next generation, and after graduation, he believes he can make that kind of a difference working as an analyst at Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, New Jersey.
“This is the next generation of taxpayers, politicians, and I think it’s important that we better understand marriage and what impact the changes in the institution of marriage are having on children,” he says. “It’s a subject that Mathematica is interested in as well, so it’s a good fit for me.”