UChicago student named Marshall Scholar, aims to reform U.S. foster care system

Fourth-year Ricky Holder will study comparative social policy at Oxford

Ricky Holder came to the University of Chicago on a mission.

Having spent the second half of his childhood in the foster care system separated from his mother and four brothers, Holder came to Hyde Park determined to one day reform an institution that he considers the “least discussed and least understood issue in America.” But he first needed the tools to understand all the issues.

Holder, a fourth-year student and Navy veteran studying public policy, has a goal to build a world-class welfare system for American children in foster care.

“No family should suffer the same fate as mine, and no society should subsidize separation when its cost is so unconscionable,” Holder wrote in his application for the Marshall Scholarship. “I hope to construct the system I so desperately needed as a child while building a model of child welfare worthy of emulation.”

On Dec. 12, it was publicly announced that Holder received the prestigious Marshall Scholarship, which recognizes academic excellence, leadership and ambassadorial potential. The Marshall will enable graduate study in the United Kingdom for a small group of students nationwide. With this support, Holder will take the next steps toward his goal at the University of Oxford in fall 2023, where he will pursue an MPhil in comparative social policy.

Oxford’s two-year program includes a yearlong research project during the second year, which Holder said appealed to him, as well as the opportunity to study the child welfare systems of multiple countries.

After completing his degree, he plans to return to the U.S. with the policy expertise and perspective he needs to enter the public sector, where he can enact the changes he envisions.

Additionally, Holder said, he sees the scholarship as an opportunity to serve as an ambassador, a role he has taken on before, both in foster care living with families of multiple races and religions and in his naval service in Japan.

“I was attracted to the idea of being a link between the United Kingdom and the United States, two countries that have a rich history with each other,” Holder said. “The fact that I had the potential to be a part of that rich history and build upon it was something that interested me about the Marshall Scholarship.”

Twenty-eight people affiliated with the University of Chicago have won a Marshall Scholarship since 1986.

“Over the last century, University of Chicago faculty, students and alumni scholars have successfully confronted the most pressing issues of our times, and Ricky is certainly a continuation of that legacy,” said John W. Boyer, dean of the College. “The College is tremendously proud of his dedication to answering these important questions about the foster care system. We are delighted the Marshall Scholarship has recognized his extraordinary talent and commitment.”

‘A cruel irony’

When Holder was 9 years old in San Bernardino, Calif., his mother was sent to prison and he was separated from his four brothers in the foster care system, never to be reunited. Ricky avoided incarceration and poverty — common outcomes for those involved in the child welfare system. His older brothers were not so fortunate

Holder was essentially on his own through the second half of his childhood. He lived in multiple homes and had countless social workers as he struggled through what he refers to as the daily indignities of the foster care system.

His brothers lived in separate group homes, which Holder said often lead to even worse experiences and outcomes than foster care.

“What most don’t understand about the foster care system,” he said, “is that neglect, which often functions as a proxy for poverty, is the primary driver of children into the system, not abuse.

The changes he wants to make would have prevented his family from separating.

“It is a cruel irony that low-income families are disintegrated in the name of child welfare, yet this welfare is so rarely achieved,” Holder argued in his scholarship application. “Rather than destroying low-income families, the child welfare system should strengthen them, and I am determined to make this happen.”

After graduating high school, he aged out of the foster care system. His enlistment in the Navy was his alternative route to avoid homelessness.

From the Navy to community college to UChicago

While Holder was serving as an information systems technician, his ship deployed frequently. This meant many nights at sea reflecting on his childhood.

He began to ask himself how he made it out while his brothers did not, and why positive outcomes for foster youth are so statistically unlikely.

“That was when I started researching, and when I realized that public policy is the precise field in which not only I can answer these broad questions, but I can also piece together what happened to my family,” Holder said.

After completing his sixth year of service in 2017, Holder enrolled at Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif., where he pursued an associate’s degree in economics and served as the school’s representative in the Student Senate for California Community Colleges. He also launched a statewide campaign to eliminate the age restriction on California’s Chafee Grant, which provides critical financial resources to foster youth.

To achieve his long-term goals, he knew he wanted to study public policy at the best university he could get into. So in early 2018, he applied to take part in the Warrior-Scholar Project, a college-preparatory academic boot camp for enlisted veterans and transitioning service members taught by university faculty.

The Warrior-Scholar Project paired Holder with UChicago, where he spent the summer growing attached to the campus and the Core Curriculum. His heart was set. UChicago was the only school he applied to, and he was accepted into the College’s Class of 2023.

He has tailored his public policy major to allow him to focus on the foster care system in an academic setting, including courses outside the major.

Last winter quarter he worked with Prof. Julia Henly of UChicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice to incorporate his study of the system into her graduate-level class on work and family policy. Holder was one of only a few undergraduate students in the class and his final essay examined what keeps low-income families together, the harms of the foster system and the trauma of separation.

Putting experience to work

Once Holder completes his MPhil at Oxford, there are a number of opportunities he is considering before eventually entering the public sector.

One, in particular, is working for family defense clinics, which pair public defenders with families who are at risk of being separated and help to extricate children from the foster system once they’re placed in it.

No matter which path he chooses, he said his motivation will remain constant: to fix the system by ending the unnecessary dissolution of families and helping ensure positive outcomes for foster youth.

“The changes I want to see will take a long time to implement, but I hope to establish myself as a stronghold so that other former foster youth can come up from behind me,” Holder said. “I want them to take advantage of the pathways that I clear for them.”

Holder secured University nomination and received application support from the College Center for Research and Fellowships, which guides candidates through rigorous processes for nationally competitive fellowships. Additional support is provided by the Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes faculty nomination committee; its ongoing service is a critical part of student success at the national level.

—A version of this story was originally published on the University of Chicago College website.