Esteemed “Accidental Economist” Shares Life Lessons

Sarah Mazer ’19, Senior Reporter

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Holly Petraeus, a retired assistant director at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPD) and “accidental economist,” shared key life lessons she learned from various jobs she has held over her life and explained how they contributing to her future career. 

Petraeus, who graduated summa cum laude from Dickinson College in 1974 with Honors in French, said the invitation to speak from the economics department was “humbling and somewhat amusing,” explaining it was not until looking at an old transcript that she realized she had taken an economics course at Dickinson during her first year. Petraeus would eventually focus her studies on the humanities, including French, English and history.

Right out of Dickinson, Petraeus married her husband, who promptly joined the military. She spent the next 37 years moving a total of 24 times, which she stated was “about once every 18 months.”

She then described the numerous odd jobs she had both overseas and domestically in military camps, working with military families and active duty members. Their first overseas move was to northern Italy, where she started out as a typist only one rung up from “rock bottom,” what Petraeus called the lowest level job. She said that eventually she was offered another job but was “guilted out” of taking the position. Petraeus cited this as her first job-related life lesson, of which she gave several during the presentation:

“If you have the opportunity for advancement, do it.”

Next, she took a position assigning government housing to incoming military families. From this job, Petraeus said that she learned how to deal with difficult people. Her advice here was to work hard, but to let people know the limits of your abilities, all while being polite and professional. 

Once she returned to the United States, none of her international civil service work was recognized as applicable work experience, and she had to start from the beginning, again at “rock bottom.” She worked as a test proctor, made laminates and worked in clinics. Additionally, she worked in records management for a division of over 15,000 soldiers. These were “not good career progression jobs,” she stated, but she “learned something from all of them” as well as making “lifelong friends and mentors.”

Petraeus said that Fort Campbell, where her family had lived and worked, “emptied out in two weeks” during the military deployments for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, leaving just the family members. Because of this, Petraeus said her role in the community grew even more. 

According to Petraeus, many military families began to suffer from benefit cuts, identity theft and scams when the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan escalated. She said that while her husband was deployed in Iraq, she began taking steps to help victims by serving a variety of organizations dedicated to the protection of military families. Though these experiences “unknowingly laid the foundation” for her career, she explained that she was “not motivated by ambition, but by a sense of duty.”

Patraeus was asked to give general advice to the CEO of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) because of her role in her community and how insightfully she represented them to inquiring government agencies. 

Petraeus called this meeting an “accidental interview” with the CEO, where she reflected on her history of working with military families. Petraeus said that she did not have the “traditional resume” and in fact “lacked a resume altogether,” but was hired on the spot regardless.

Petraeus was asked to serve as Director of the BBB Military Line, where she managed over 55,000 military complaints per year.

Petraeus said that she became the Assistant Director of the CFPD after another inadvertent interview, this time with Senator Elizabeth Warren. When she learned about the CFPD, which was created in 2011 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, Petraeus said she was ready to be part of a “new agency that would have the power to do something” and “make bad things happen to people who broke the law.” She added that unlike previous federal reporting agencies, the CFBD had the power to implement severe repercussions for companies that had committed fraud or abuse by allowing victims to publicly post their complaints. 

Petraeus, who retired from the CFBD last year, said that the agency has “not been doing much” following the appointment of Mick Mulvaney as acting director. She explained that Mulvaney, who was appointed by Donald Trump, is “not a fan of the bureau or its work” and has sought to reign in the agency’s power as Acting Director.

Petraeus assured Dickinson students that professional paths are not always linear and that even the most mundane jobs can teach important lessons. The lessons she highlighted included her non-traditional experiences like volunteering with Cub Scouts. Petraeus explained “there’s nothing like a group of Cub Scouts completing your 45-minute activity in five [minutes] to teach you crisis management.” 

At the conclusion of her presentation, which attracted about sixty students, Petraeus commented that she was bothered by the growing trend of opposition to controversial speakers on campus. She urged students to seek different points of view and to avoid the temptation of “surrounding yourself with like-minded people and refusing to listen to opposing views.”

French and international business & management major Emily Stutzman ’19 said that her biggest takeaway from Petraeus’ speech was the versatility of a Dickinson education. She explained that Petraeus’ “circuitous route” demonstrates that “it is possible to major in one thing but go in so many other directions.” 

Professor of economics Emily Marshall, who initially connected with Petraeus at an alumni event in Washington D.C., said that she was inspired by Petraeus’ passion for consumer finance and financial literacy allowed her to consider ways to share her knowledge with others and “help decrease inequality through education.”

The event was held the Stern Great Room on Oct. 8 at 4:30 p.m