Whatever You’re Doing, Do It Well: A Q&A with Senior Policy Advisor Tom Church
Church shared his advice for students and spoke about his career in our exclusive Q&A
Tom Church, Senior Policy Advisor at Free the Facts, is a well-known figure across our events and programming. As a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, he has a breadth of experience studying health care policy, income inequality, and entitlement reform that he has contributed to Free the Facts. We sat down with Tom Church to learn more about his background, career, and advice for students.
Q: Where are you from? What were your favorite things to do growing up?
A: I'm from Midland, Michigan, a nice small town about an hour and a half north of Detroit. In Michigan in the wintertime, you picked hockey or skiing, and I picked skiing. And it’ll come as no surprise that I was a big book nerd.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: I went to the University of Michigan for my undergraduate degree, where I studied math and political science. Then I went to Pepperdine University for my master's degree in public policy.
Q: What activities did you participate in when you were in college?
A: I wrote for a few years for the Michigan Review, which is a journal on campus. I was also a part of a program called Michigan in Washington during my freshman year, which sent students to D.C. for a semester where we interned and took classes at night. Interning in D.C. when you were expected to just be in college was really fun.
Q: How did you become interested in studying income inequality, health care policy, and entitlement reform?
A: At first, it was the decision to study public policy. I was always interested in finance and numbers, and then in politics and policy. When Wall Street blew up while I was finishing my college degree, it gave me the extra push to do policy instead of finance, so I went ahead and did my master’s in public policy. A lot of my interest comes down to just following data and testing hypotheses.
Q: Did you have a different career plan for yourself when you were a college student?
A: After serving as a congressional page in D.C. as a junior in high school, I was pretty set on public policy. In college, I said, “well, I gotta do something else”—and realized, “wow, I like math!” When you're studying something you really think is interesting, you realize you want to keep doing it.
Q: What’s your favorite college memory?
A: Michigan's a great school academically but man, is it fun to go to football and basketball and hockey games—and everything else. Walking to the football stadium half a dozen times every season with 100,000 fans together with all your friends felt magical every single time. I really enjoyed that.
Q: What was your career path leading up to the Hoover Institution?
A: I got very lucky because I went to grad school to study policy, and part of Pepperdine’s program is that you intern full time for the summer. I applied and got taken up at the Hoover Institution, which I am really grateful for. I went up there for the summer and loved it, and they offered me a full time job following. It was a pretty easy decision because I wanted to stay in California and it was a great opportunity.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your work?
A: I enjoy the ubers [sic] of large think tanks and the breadth of the fellows that are there. Everyone's an expert in their field, and I have access to approachable people studying every issue with real-world experience—it's like a kid in a candy shop. The project I work on right now is called PolicyEd, where we try to explain research to the public. It's really enjoyable to marry policy, academic rigor, and education.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: Pre-COVID, my favorite thing to do is take advantage of California. We're a few hours from the mountains to ski, less than an hour from the beach to enjoy the summertime, and less than an hour from a city which has great concerts and terrific food and restaurants. I enjoy taking advantage of what's available here in the Bay Area.
Q: How did you get involved with Free the Facts?
A: Lanhee Chen, the chairman of our Policy Advisory Board, is also a research fellow at Hoover, where we got to know each other. He was approached by our fearless leader Lindsay Hayes, who was putting together a project on how much the government was spending and what we should be doing about that. He said, “I know a guy who runs a lot of numbers and works on this.” We've been working on it ever since. What I love about Free the Facts is talking to students who may disagree with each other politically and encouraging them to work together to create bipartisan, or really nonpartisan, solutions.
Q: What is your most memorable Free the Facts policy tour experience?
A: On one of the tours, we went to the University of Michigan and then right after, we went down to Ohio State, its rival school. At Michigan, when I was introduced as a graduate of Michigan, I got applause. When we went to the next event in Ohio, Lindsey introduced me as a proud graduate of the University of Michigan and in a room of 100 people, I got booed! It was hilarious because as Lindsay was introducing me, I went, ‘no no no!’ It ended up being a nice self-deprecating way to start the talk with ‘I understand, but let's talk about this instead.’
Q: Do you have any advice for students who are interested in fiscal policy or public policy as a whole?
A: You hear this all the time but I didn't appreciate it until later—whatever you're doing, do it well, because it leads to the next thing. People like to joke all the time that no one’s going to care about your GPA when you’re 40, but the truth is that people care about your GPA or whatever research you’re doing when you're applying to grad school or trying to get a job. So, whatever you're working on, even if you think it might not matter in the future, it matters for what’s next. If you do it really well, people will notice and it will lead to your next thing.