Navy veteran finds intellectual home at UChicago

Experience in foster care drives Ricky Holder’s study of child welfare, criminal justice

Editor’s note: This story is part of ‘Meet a UChicagoan,’ a regular series focusing on the people who make UChicago a distinct intellectual community. Read about the others here.

When Ricky Holder graduated high school, he faced a choice: He had just aged out of the foster care system, and, unless he found an alternative, would soon be facing homelessness. To avoid this all-too-common outcome for former foster youth, Holder enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

“I’ve met a lot of folks from all over the country who, like me, were low-income, and their city didn’t offer many opportunities,” said Holder, now a second-year student at the University of Chicago. “The military was the sole opportunity for social mobility available to me and many of my fellow servicemembers.”

Holder is part of the UChicago Veteran Scholars program, an initiative that provides holistic services—including academic and career counseling—to student-veterans in the College. With support from the Tillman Scholarship, he plans to continue to law school, with the goal of becoming a public defender.

Born in San Bernardino, California, Holder was placed in foster care at age nine after his mother was sent to prison. His decade in foster care fundamentally shaped his interest in studying poverty, inequality, urban policy and criminal justice reform. At UChicago and beyond, Holder is committed to creating positive change for those impacted by the same challenges he faced in his childhood.

“I believe the foster care system is the least discussed and least understood issue in America,” Holder said. “I want to pursue my education, particularly because I wanted to make sure that what happened to me as a child doesn’t need to happen again to any other child.”

From the Navy to UChicago

During his six years in the Navy, Holder served as an information systems technician—first in Virginia and then in Japan. Being at sea, he said, helped him mature and determine what he wanted in life.

“It’s a rough lifestyle, being out at sea, but the benefit is that you get a lot of time for introspection,” Holder said. “I started thinking more about what happened in my childhood that that led me to join the Navy, and led so many people like me to join the military.”

After leaving the Navy, Holder attended a community college in the Bay Area for one year. He then visited UChicago in the summer of 2018 through the Warrior-Scholar Project, a weeklong academic boot camp that helps veterans bridge the gap between military life and higher education. 

“Where I’m from, you don’t really think about attending elite schools," Holder said. “I fell in love with UChicago, and within three months of me visiting the school for the first time, I applied and was fortunate enough to be selected.”

Once at UChicago, Holder dived into the local community. Last year, he participated in a program through the Institute of Politics called Bridging the Divide, which connects urban and rural students and conducts voter outreach across Illinois. He also participated in the civic engagement and leadership program Seeds of Justice, and interned with the Children’s Defense Fund. He lives with his wife Leslie in Vue53, which is also home to many other members of the UChicago veteran community.

So far, he’s found just the type of education he’d been seeking.

“My wife always calls me a nerd for saying this, but I love the intellectual rigor that this school is known for,” he said. “I was drawn to the Core curriculum—the way a biology major and music major could leave a SOSC class talking about the same thing. This is a school you go to if you want to challenge yourself.”

‘I want to change the system itself’

At the heart of Holder’s intersecting policy interests is criminal justice reform. His experiences as a young person gave him distinct insights into the factors that often contribute to incarceration.

“My mother was in prison for many years of my childhood, and ultimately, my brothers ended up following that same path,” Holder said. “I know, intimately so, that many people who find themselves entrapped in the criminal justice system are not failures themselves, but rather, people that have been failed. As a public defender, I will utilize my unique perspective to represent folks like my family, and I’ll focus on addressing the underlying circumstances that contribute to crime, such as poverty and inequality.”

“There’s a lack of urgency on these matters by our nation’s policymakers—not just on criminal justice, but on the foster care system, poverty and inequality,” he added. “Every year that we fail to act is another year in which thousands of children and families are swept up into systems that exacerbate existing inequities rather than solve them. I want to change the system itself.”