The gift of mentorship

American economist Thomas Gilligan, PhD ’84, created a graduate fellowship inspired by the mentor who encouraged him to further his education at WashU.

Growing up in a Navy family, Thomas Gilligan, PhD ’84, learned the value of mentorship at an early age.

“Life as a military brat was pretty good,” Gilligan said. His father was a career sailor, and Gilligan grew up experiencing the strong community that comes with life on military bases. “There were lots of parents around that had the authority to discipline me if I needed it. So, we grew up with a very large family.”

Gilligan would go on to a distinguished career that included service in the U.S. Air Force and appointments to staff economist in the White House, dean of the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Hoover Institution. Many of those doors opened for him with the support of mentors, including a fellow WashU graduate who inspired Gilligan to pay it forward.

“Mentoring relationships add a lot of value to your life,” Gilligan said. “I have benefited so much from people providing opportunities to me that wouldn’t have occurred naturally.”

Thomas Gilligan served as the Tad and Dianne Taube Director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University from 2015 to 2020.

One mentor had an especially profound impact on Gilligan’s trajectory: Eden Yu, PhD ‘76. Yu was teaching economics at the University of Oklahoma when he was asked to mentor Gilligan, an undergraduate in an Oklahoma honors program.

“Eden set me on a path that I followed for a very long time,” Gilligan said. “He saw talent in me that I didn’t know I had and worked very hard to help me develop it.”

In Oklahoma, Yu supervised Gilligan’s thesis on international trade, which was eventually published in an academic journal. “We met from time to time to discuss Tom’s academic work and career options,” Yu said. “I invited him over to my house to meet my family, and to share and exchange ideas.”

Despite demonstrating great potential as an economics scholar, Gilligan had never considered going to graduate school before he met Yu. “I had very good parents who encouraged and supported me throughout my undergraduate education,” Gilligan said. “But in the culture I came from, there was a bit of a stigma attached to hanging around college after graduating instead of getting a job.”

Still, Yu strongly encouraged Gilligan to pursue his doctorate in economics at Washington University, emphasizing the opportunities it would provide him in government, academia, and financial services.

"I give back to WashU because I want to make sure that other people are afforded the opportunities I was given."

“With Eden’s help, I applied and got admitted to WashU with a full-ride fellowship,” he said. “Without much of a sense of where I was going, I found myself on this lily-covered path.”

Although Gilligan felt lucky to attend WashU, earning his PhD didn’t come easily. “The courses were taught by people whose names were on the textbooks we studied,” Gilligan said. “There may have been one or two students who were comfortable with that level of education, but most people were as overwhelmed as I was.”

Gilligan soon found that exchanging support with his peers would be the best way to succeed. “Once we realized that we were all scared, we gathered together to help each other,” he said. “It ended up being very fulfilling.”

To honor Yu and give back to the school that launched both of their careers, Gilligan and his wife, Christie Skinner, created the Eden S.H. Yu Graduate Fellowship in Economics. The fellowship will provide financial support to WashU graduate students whose potential, like Gilligan’s, could be unlocked with support.

“It was very, very important for me to get into WashU and get the fellowship that I did,” Gilligan said. “I give back to WashU because I want to make sure that other people are afforded the opportunities I was given.”

“I was so overwhelmed to hear that Tom pledged to set up graduate fellowships in my name,” Yu said. “It is truly very kind of Tom to remember me and our alma mater.”