Thao Pham ’24 always admired how people could stumble onto things they enjoyed. No planning, no expectations. Just those random little discoveries that shape a hobby, a career, a life.
She wasn’t like that. She researched. She weighed options.
“Usually, I just pick from what I know,” she says.
But then she found herself nearing the end of high school in Hanoi, Vietnam, facing all kinds of questions about her future — where to go to college, what to study, what career path might fit her best.
And she found herself stumbling across some life-changing answers.
She discovered Denison at a college fair. After a long conversation with the recruiter about the economics department, the Knowlton Center for Career Exploration, and just the whole campus vibe, she knew it was right. She watched YouTube videos on economics majors and realized that felt right, too — an academic path that fit her plans for a career in business.
Then she happened upon a YouTuber who walks around college campuses asking what students are studying, and she noticed a puzzling number saying they were majoring in math.
“OK,” she thought, “why would you major in math?”
More videos followed. She learned that math majors weren’t just future teachers and researchers — they were working in all kinds of fields, especially business. She decided to go for it. A double major in economics and math.
“It’s the most unplanned decision that I’ve made in my education and career,” she says. “But I was like, OK, this is actually a terrific combination.”
And so it was set. Denison. Double major. A first semester online, disrupted by a global pandemic. Then a journey from tropical Hanoi to Columbus, Ohio, where she and a crew of international students were picked up at the airport and delivered to a Granville twinkling in its best winter splendor. A blanket of white surrounded the van, and when they arrived on The Hill, the driver giggled as Pham dipped her hand into the fresh powder and studied the flakes.
“Oh,” she said, “it looks like a flower!”
The snow, her first, was a surprise. Everything else was exactly as she’d hoped. Denison was full of the friendly students the recruiter had raved about and the vast opportunities that would shape her life. She joined the student investment club and through that organization, she discovered the opportunity to intern at the university’s investment office.
She knew she had a lot to learn, so she applied — and the investment office, which had never taken a first-year student as a summer intern before, gave her a shot.
“We were a little skeptical about hiring a first-year,” says Director of Investment Operations Nicholas Carangelo. “But the reason we brought her in was that right after the interview, she was like, ‘Tell me what I need to do — even if I don’t get the job, what’s helpful for walking down this career path?’ It just showed a lot about her dedication.”
At first, she seemed quiet, almost shy. By the end of the summer, Carangelo says, she was mentoring other students and taking on projects that exceeded the usual intern work.
“She’s very, very ambitious,” he says. “You could tell she was there to soak up as much as possible. I think she tackles every experience from the angle of, ‘What is the absolute most I can take from this?’”
She was a sponge that summer, and the experience cemented her path. Investment management was her calling. The following year she interned at 1607 Capital Partners in Richmond, Virginia, while completing the Online Intensive Program with Girls Who Invest, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of women in portfolio management and executive leadership in the investment management industry.
Later she became a campus ambassador for Girls Who Invest and helped recruit Beril Gultekin ’25, an economics major from Ankara, Turkey. Gultekin completed the rigorous application for the 2023 summer program with help from the Knowlton Center and Pham, who also works as a peer career coach in the Knowlton Center.
Gultekin found out in January — she got in.
“It was really helpful for a student that goes to Denison to have those prior experiences,” Gultekin says, “and she was so helpful in answering any questions I had — how long did it take to finish courses, how is the program benefiting you as an alum, how did it improve you in different ways?”
This summer, Pham’s headed to New York for an internship with private investment firm Starwood Capital Group, an opportunity of such magnitude that Carangelo can’t overstate how impressive it is. “I would think that was almost impossible for someone from a liberal arts university,” he says. “I’m thrilled, very proud — but not surprised — that she’s doing this well. I think that Thao knows exactly what she wants to do, exactly what path she wants to take, and will 100% give her all.”
Well, maybe not exactly. The careful planner is still working out the details. Maybe there’s room for a few surprises — some more unexpected randomness to stumble upon.
“I know for sure I’m still going to be learning as much as I can in the investment field by being open to new opportunities as they come, and I’m excited about it,” she says. “But I don’t have a master plan of how I’m going to get somewhere. I just know I’m going to get there.”