New College award honors student’s commitment to service

Honor named after University of Chicago’s 11th president

The first Hugo F. Sonnenschein Medal of Excellence was presented on Class Day to Ricky Holder, AB’23. Named in honor of the University of Chicago’s 11th president, it recognizes one graduating student whose character and deeds embody the University's foundational commitment to the direct and active betterment of society at large.

The award seeks to inspire an ethos of engagement that further strengthens the University’s service to local, national and international communities.

On April 30, 1996, then-University President Sonnenschein issued a challenge to the University community in the form of a letter calling on the institution to expand its undergraduate student population.

UChicago graduates, he argued, had a responsibility to effect meaningful change in the world through “hope, respected leadership and thoughtful citizenship.” Sonnenschein’s conviction was that by expanding and enhancing undergraduate education, the University would advance the “profound worth” of transformative, liberal arts education beyond its own walls.

That vision is now recognized through a new award that bears his name. The Hugo F. Sonnenschein Medal of Excellence is the highest honor bestowed upon an undergraduate in recognition of the same qualities of its namesake: unwavering hope, ambition for others and an abiding courage of conviction.

Investments in student life 

Sonnenschein supported systematic efforts to strengthen the College, including many new investments in student life and the reform of the venerable Core Curriculum in 1998 to create more elective opportunities for third- and fourth-year students. The new Core created greater flexibility for students to follow their diverse academic and experiential interests, and aligned with Sonnenschein’s view that “a student’s life encompasses more than their coursework.”

Sonnenschein’s willingness and determination to advance systemic, structural change stemmed from his belief in UChicago’s potential to make a global impact. “A primary purpose of academic leadership is to guide a university to appreciate its strengths, to examine what it can do better, and to help it to serve society,” Sonnenschein told the Rochester Review in 2017. “We are expected to lead the cheers, but we must also hold up a mirror. Great universities need to be challenged.”

Hugo Sonnenschein was "a transformational leader who championed the College and cared deeply about the University’s unique ability to serve the world,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College, while presenting the inaugural medal. “With this award, we recognize one graduating student whose character and actions embody the College’s foundational commitment to the direct and active betterment of society.”

Holder embodies the values celebrated by the Sonnenschein Medal. As a Navy veteran, he has lived out the call to serve and has since forged connections between rigorous academic inquiry and action. He will continue to dedicate his life to serving foster youth, an effort that earned him the prestigious Marshall Scholarship this past year.

Holder spent the second half of his childhood in foster care, and his experiences with the system’s challenges and shortcomings drive him to work as a catalyst for change. He is a testament to the power of perseverance and compassion, emerging as a leading advocate for reform and the urgent need for improving the lives of children in the system.

Very few foster youths reach the heights that Holder has – under 10% of former foster care recipients graduate from college by the time they turn 26. His life’s work is focused on drastically improving outcomes by providing support to families in need and narrowing the pipeline of children who enter the system.

“I am obligated to use the rare chance that I have in this life to try and make a difference,” he said. “I feel like that lived experience I have, I could use it a lot of different ways, and the best way to spend it is to make sure that a child who has grown up in a similar situation has the same chances that I have now. That’s what motivates me, and why I think serving is the best path forward.”

After serving in the Navy for six years, he attended Foothill College in his home state of California, where he successfully urged the state legislature to amend a law that restricts how financial assistance is provided to former foster youth who attend college.

He later organized a “Homeless Students Summit” that spurred solutions to a housing crisis at California community colleges, and served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate who represented foster youth who can often feel voiceless in their own court proceedings.

Life of public service planned

At the University of Chicago, he tailored his undergraduate course load to best prepare him for a life of public service.

“[In] almost every class I’ve taken here, [I have asked], ‘how can I use the education I’m acquiring to make the change I want to see?’” he said. “No matter the subject, I have tried to shoehorn in the issues that I care passionately about. And I think [that effort has] born fruit in the way I think about and understand this issue.”

As Holder prepares for graduate studies at the University of Oxford this fall supported by the Marshall Scholarship, he acknowledged that receiving the Sonnenschein Medal in his final days on campus was “incredibly affirming” of all he has achieved at UChicago and beyond, and all he aims to accomplish in the future.

“I came to this campus with modest expectations – I just wanted to get good grades and develop the skills I needed to do something good in the world,” he said. “This [recognition] tells me, ‘You’re on the right path.’ This public service life, this career I want to pursue, this calling that I think I have … it’s a way for me to know I’m doing the right thing and the University recognizes that. It’s an incredible honor, and humbling as well.”

In celebrating the remarkable legacy of Hugo F. Sonnenschein and acknowledging the extraordinary promise of its first recipient Ricky Holder, the University hopes to inspire its current and future undergraduates to cultivate excellence in character, to pursue lives of purposeful leadership, and to serve others and the world.

This story originally appeared on the UChicago College website.