Oriana Galasso knows all too well what it’s like to have a home with a shifting foundation. As the child of a military family and one of seven siblings, Galasso is no stranger to being uprooted. Born in Adelaide, Australia, she counts Florida, Utah, Arizona, Virginia, and California among the places she’s lived.
When her father retired from the military, the family found themselves with nowhere to live. Bouncing between relatives and hotels, Galasso’s family had to make the best of it. In 2012, she transferred to UNLV to study kinesiology and immediately got involved on campus.
After a few years working in a variety of roles for the housing department, she was ready for more of a personal challenge. Following a meeting with Richard Clark, executive director of housing and overseer of the HOPE program on campus, she became advisor to the program's students.
The program is a partnership with Title I HOPE of the Clark County School District, Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY), and UNLV. The program helps students who qualify as unaccompanied homeless youth in Clark County secure year-round housing, academic and financial support, employment, and counseling while attending UNLV.
Galasso manages the softer side of the program, meeting with potential students, reviewing applications, answering questions, and assisting students in becoming acclimated to life at a university.
Working as counselor and confidant to students means that setting boundaries is a crucial part of the job. “I’m not their friend, but I’m friendly, and I am learning how that’s healthy for them and for me,” Galasso said. “I really had to think about the student perspective, and what it means to be reliable and trustworthy to young adults who are at times understandably guarded.”
Six students joined the program in its first year. This year, five more will come on board. In addition to the impact the program has had on students, HOPE had a positive impact on the housing department at UNLV.
“It has increased our sensitivity and responsiveness to students and inquiries about housing,” Galasso said. “And more importantly it has magnified how consistent we need to be as we provide a home and resources to all of our students.”
While a 3.0 grade point average is required to enter the program, these students often exceed that requirement, and are usually working jobs and involved in sports and extracurricular activities on top of it. It gives students a chance to focus on something constructive as they endeavor to build a life beyond their circumstances.
The Clark County School District recruits students by finding those who are identified by the state as unaccompanied homeless youth who also have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and presents HOPE as a scholarship opportunity.
Galasso and a dedicated team then meet with interested students at their high schools, twice in the fall and a few times in the spring. Students will make campus visits where they meet with financial aid, tour the residence halls, and eat in the dining commons. Candidates are reviewed on criteria including financial need, essay, and determining who will benefit the most.
HOPE scholar Angellica Hungerford said the program has “given me a shot at a successful life.”
The social work major had originally considered UNR until she saw the benefits of the HOPE program. Not only would she have a place to live and go to school, but by participating, she gained a sense of independence and developed deep connections in and around campus.
“UNLV surprises people,” she said.
At first, Galasso had no idea how much of an impact the HOPE program would have. A year into its existence, now she knows. There were students who were couch surfing, or living in bus stations and parking garages. They avoided homeless shelters because of the theft and bullying that can happen there.
Beyond housing and meal plans, other local partners have donated school supplies and backpacks, bedding sets, and clothing for the scholars. The latest Rebel Raiser campaign for the HOPE program raised more than $7,500. Learning about the people behind and involved with HOPE brings to light the reality that there are students in this valley who aren't as fortunate as some of their other peers.