Alumni Fellowship Winner to Focus on Labor Economics

Right about the time Galen Pierce-Gardner was preparing to head out into the world and decide who and what he wanted to be, the world dealt his family two blows that would shape his future.

In the last two years of high school, Galen’s mother was diagnosed with a late-stage cancer and given slim odds. Added to this was the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the loss of his father’s job. At the time federal law didn’t protect those with pre-existing health conditions, so this combination of circumstances imperiled his family’s access to vital healthcare. Thankfully, Galen’s mother beat the odds, but the situation took a financial and emotional toll on the family, leaving a lasting impression on him.

“It just struck me in a deeply personal way that with these fundamental needs like healthcare, families and individuals were in a very precarious state,” says Galen. “There was just this thin margin for error for catastrophic events like my mom’s cancer. Just like that, this entire buffer of security was gone.”

After graduating from college at Virginia Commonwealth University, Galen jumped into the 2008 election cycle, doing fieldwork for the Obama and Mark Warner presidential and senate campaigns. After working for candidates who promised to reshape healthcare, his passion turned to employment and labor issues. He spent the next seven years in civil service as a policy analyst with the U.S. Department of Labor in Washington, D.C. There, he worked to give elected officials information on the effects of labor market adjustments in context of proposed free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In helping to promote Trade Adjustment Assistance, he was able to help hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers find training opportunities and re-employment during one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history.

“It was a big privilege to help those workers,” he says. 

Though Galen was successful in this role, he’d long wanted to improve his quantitative skills—specifically, his ability to parse and present labor and economic data in a way that was understandable to elected leaders, who could use the data to shape policy decisions. 

“I did a lot with data without any strong formal training,” he says. “But at times I really felt the limitations of my abilities.”

With those goals in mind, Galen looked at schools with a quantitative emphasis. He chose Chicago Harris in large part because of its focus on rigorous, quantitative inquiry, and because of the financial support he will receive as the school’s second Alumni Fellow. Without the fellowship, Galen says, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to come to Harris.

Chad Williams, president of the Alumni Council, says the fellowship was designed for just such a situation, allowing students to follow their passion for public policy, especially if doing so might not result in a high-paying career. That resonated with many alumni, who remember the costs associated with getting through school.

“If you’re going to enter a policy school and go into a career that isn’t lucrative, you could use some help. There are people who can do really great things if they have the right training,” Williams says. “When you’re out of school and paying off student loans, that’s something we, as alumni, can relate to.”

The first Alumni Fellowship recipient, AnnaLisa Daniele, says the support she’s receiving has allowed her to explore an independent research project in Ghana. She has also decided to pursue a joint MBA with Chicago Booth to develop an interest in using technology to address healthcare access.

“I was quite moved to receive a scholarship exclusively funded by alumni, and recent alumni at that,” Daniele says. “I took the gesture as an introduction to the Harris alumni community and saw it as indicative of its strength, as well as its commitment to developing a vibrant network of like-minded individuals.”

Jeremy Edwards, senior associate dean of academic and student affairs, says Galen has shown promise and dedication to the field of public policy analysis during his time with the Labor Department, making him a great choice for the fellowship.

“He consistently demonstrated an ability to envision and execute change,” Edwards says. “His work in statistical analysis, along with his management and leadership skills, are a perfect fit for the rigorous academic discipline of the Harris School.”  

Galen says the support from the Alumni Fellowship will allow him to enhance his time at Harris through student activities and community outreach. He has already helped co-found a new student group, Students for Criminal Justice Reform, which he says will focus on policy concerns in the criminal justice system as well as community outreach and service in the city.

“This is the kind of thing I can do because of the fellowship,” Galen says. “Fundamentally, I’m a people person. I just want to keep trying to help people, and the Alumni Fellowship will allow me to do just that.”

—Brian Wallheimer