Alum Sees His Economics Degree as a Solid Investment
Waylon Wouters will give you advice on when to buy and sell stock. That’s his job. But if you want advice on how to get the most out of your education, he recommends understanding yourself, your strengths, and finding your own niche. Wouters used the analytical and critical thinking skills his BA in Economics gave him to leverage himself “out of the mailroom” and into the position of Vice-President at the investment firm D.A. Davidson. “While you’re on that journey you get to know yourself better, you can figure out what you’re good at – your niche,” Wouters remembers. “Finding your niche will then help you build your puzzle of success.”
Wouters became a high school sports sensation in California, even receiving a football scholarship, but never acted on it. Instead, he became a father to a baby boy in 1999. Wouters remarks that before he really had a life of his own he had created one, and he took the responsibility of caring for his new family seriously. His first ‘real’ job was at a local grocery chain, working nights and taking community college classes during the day. Though he wasn’t afraid of hard work and long hours, and was making decent money, he started to suspect he was not applying himself appropriately to advance professionally. An opportunity to move to Denver came in 2002, so he took a chance and uprooted his family. Little did he know that in his future as a stock trader taking risks would eventually be something his family’s livelihood would depend upon on a regular basis.
After relocating Wouters found an entry level job as an Assistant at the investment firm D.A. Davidson, helping the traders who worked the stock market floor. He was starting at the bottom, but he knew how to work hard and he recognized in D.A. Davidson an employer who would appreciate that. He was making less money at the bank than he had back-home at the grocery, but he soon realized a proper education and his foot-in-the-door in finance would get him where he wanted to go. After countless hours of dry clean runs, coffee fetching, and random sale order faxing, Wouters decided to go back to school. He continued to work full-time and started classes, initially at Metropolitan State College of Denver, but eventually at the University of Colorado Denver. He found the classes CU Denver had to offer far more enriching and the instructors more challenging, and within a year he was at CU Denver full-time.
Wouters absorbed as much information as he could while at work: keeping his ear to the ground, figuring out the stockbrokers’ lingo and asking the traders what they knew and how they knew it. Some of his mentors went to Ivy League schools for finance and some held MBAs, but Wouters discovered that even with their expensive educations some couldn’t explain simple economic concepts. The valuable knowledge Wouters was receiving at CU Denver, combined with his on-the-job training, was supplying him with what he needed to become successful in as his chosen field. There seemed to be a real need for critical thinking, analytical problem solving, and the ability to appreciate diversity and interact with people from all walks of life, as well as verbal and written communication skills in the field of trading equities. Wouters felt his liberal arts education would supply him with all these abilities.
He honed in on a degree in economics, and according to Wouters, “I became a full-fledged Econ nerd.” He found economics fit his personality, with the discipline’s reliance on facts and figures balanced by plenty of human interaction. Since he was working during the day and taking classes at night he was matched with students who were also out in the real world, gaining hands-on experience. They brought to the classroom more than could be taught from textbooks, and Wouters found this learning environment suited him best. The classes he took were engaging, partly because of the economic department’s great professors but also because the students challenged each other and the instructors. Wouters’ real-world experience made him comfortable enough to challenge his professors, and the faculty gladly rose to the occasion.
The University of Colorado Denver afforded him the ability to learn from a host of other “econ nerds,” as Wouters describes them. Kyle Hurst and Steve Beckman were two of the professors who influenced him most. They brought to the classroom real-life scenarios and encouraged students to think more like professionals and less like students, which Wouters describes as priceless. Wouters remembers his professors debunking traditional economic theories and encouraging students to ask questions before blindly accepting knowledge. These professors showed him how to think more critically, to accept that any idea may be wrong, and to look for reasons why those with vested interests might be using outdated knowledge to support the status-quo. “That’s what a good education is about. It’s not about knowing, it’s about thinking,” Wouters reflects.
Wouters has been employed at D.A. Davidson for 12 years now, the same firm that hired him when he first moved his family to Denver. He started on the floor as the traders’ errand boy and now he is a Vice President of Sales and Trading. He trades millions of dollars every day, and his rich background in economics helps him make those decisions in a snap, “intuitively” he says. Wouters enjoys trading equities: the rush of the sale, the challenge and timing involved, knowing when to buy and when to sit back. He feels fortunate to have found a career path which so complements his personality. It is stressful and risky, but once he realized he had the knack he became very confident in his decision making ability. Wouters remains confident in his choices, and he sees his economics degree from CU Denver as a great investment in himself. “In order to know yourself, you have to travel, be ambitious, find the pieces of the puzzle in your life that will make you happy. Take a journey.” He says, “If you want to study history, awesome—but go see Egypt. Go to Greece. See it for yourself. Then will you know if you really want to study history. Because you’ve experienced it first-hand, and that makes what you do legit.”
Ultimately, Wouters says education is only one piece in the puzzle of real success, and the largest part of his puzzle remains his family. Wouters, a self-proclaimed “family man first,” now has three boys, ranging in age from eight to fourteen. When he’s had a particularly stressful day, he comes home and engages in all sorts of ‘Peter Pan’ activities with his boys. “They keep me young,” he says. “I act like a big kid when I’m with them.”
Stacey McDole is a student at CU Denver majoring in English Writing with a minor in Film Studies.