For foster care students, new program is a lifeline 

Heather Richardson is the program coordinator for UNLV’s Fostering Scholars program, which provides resources to students impacted by foster care.

By Anthony Cave

The only gaps in Heather Richardson’s day might be the brief moments when she’s able to take a sip of water. 

On a spring afternoon, her Student Union office has bags of groceries underneath her desk and a distinct “Foster Love” mug on top, next to some paperwork. 

Richardson is program coordinator for UNLV’s Fostering Scholars program, which provides resources to students impacted by foster care. Though UNLV has offered assistance to foster youth for years, the Fostering Scholars program only formally started in June 2021. 

“I was removed from my parents when I was 13,” she said. “So I know what it’s like.” 

On top of her personal story, Richardson’s professional experience in the foster care system is extensive. She previously spent 16 years as a lead case worker with Clark County’s Department of Family Services. 

The county sees about 3,000 kids in foster care at any given time. 

The Las Vegas native, mother to five and two-time UNLV alumna, who lived out of her car at one point, raised her two youngest sisters as well. 

As program coordinator, Richardson works with about 30 students impacted by foster care, although she hopes to reach the entire population – about 85 students across UNLV are affected overall. 

Students impacted by foster care receive a tuition fee waiver, but they often have to figure out the rest, even with additional financial support from the county.

Many of these students have never had an adult support system. On average, Richardson notes that individuals in foster care are moved about seven times. 

Her day includes plenty of one-on-one attention for students, with everything from wrangling finances for textbooks to housing and grades. 

“If you can’t pay your power bill, you can’t focus on school,” Richardson said, also noting that some students don’t have a back-up housing plan during the winter and summer breaks. 

So what keeps Richardson going?

“It’s the daily successes,” she said, noting that her students, overall, have a grade point average above 3.0, including those on probation. 

Most are studying in “helping” professions as well, including social work and nursing. 

Richardson reflected on one student on the verge of being administratively dropped – potentially losing housing as a result, too – who has since done a “180-degree turnaround.”

“A lot of people don’t realize they work just as hard,” she said. “They have the academic aptitude to do just as well.” 

For now, Fostering Scholars is grant-funded for two years, although Richardson is hopeful for more donors and future funding. 

When asked about mentoring these students given her own foster care experience, Richardson said getting a mentor is key, even for those not impacted by foster care. 

“We all need someone to aspire to be like,” she said. 

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