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Overcoming What Seems Impossible

Weight Watchers founder Jean Nidetch inspired millions to eat healthy and then shared her success by helping thousands of Rebels through the campus women’s center and scholarships.

UNLV History  |  Jul 2, 2015  |  By Diane Russell
Editor's Note: 

This is part of our occasional Namesakes series about the people who are memorialized around our campus.


Jean Nidetch wasn't looking to establish a legacy; she just wanted to lose those extra 72 pounds once and for all.

She not only lost the weight -- and reportedly kept it off for more than 50 years -- but also left a mark on UNLV. The founder of Weight Watchers and the namesake of UNLV's Jean Nidetch Women's Center died April 29, 2015, at age 91.

Her company began with an invitation to a few friends to meet and provide each other with support as they struggled to lose unwanted pounds. She and her first husband teamed up with another couple to build Weight Watchers into an internationally successful organization. In 1978, they sold it to the H.J. Heinz Company -- the price tag was reportedly $71.2 million.

Nidetch chose to share her success by donating money to causes she considered worthy. A sizeable donation allowed the university to create the Jean Nidetch Women's Center, which began operating in 1993, and to establish a scholarship that has helped dozens of students pursue their bachelor's degrees.

Schyler Richards, a former longtime UNLV employee, recalled, "She wanted to be involved in the community in which she was living and liked the idea of (being involved in) the university." She added that Nidetch had become friends with two of UNLV's key supporters: the late Kitty Rodman and Claudine Williams.

"It was a big deal to her to support women and especially those who had overcome adversity," said Richards, now associate vice president of advancement at Touro University Nevada. She added that Nidetch had come of age at a time when "women were supposed to stay home and be quiet."

Jean Nidetch Women's Center

Today the Jean Nidetch Women's Center provides a variety of resources to both women and men. The center's advocacy program is particularly popular, said director Cristina Hernandez. It trains members of the campus community how to respond to incidences of interpersonal violence and how to help victims access resources in the greater Southern Nevada community.

The center maintains a 24-hour hotline at 702-895-0602 for survivors of interpersonal violence as well as their family and friends. Volunteer advocates, who receive a minimum of 35 hours of training, staff the hotline.

During the 2013-14 academic year, the center and its advocates:

  • Educated 1,737 students about interpersonal violence.
  • Received requests for assistance from 133 people concerning sexual assault, domestic violence, or stalking.
  • Organized the 20th annual Take Back the Night event at UNLV. Approximately 600 students attended the event, which honors victims of domestic, sexual, dating, and gender violence; supports survivors; and celebrates survival.

Additionally, the women's center has established seven lactation centers across campus for mothers to breastfeed or pump milk in private, clean spaces.

Nidetch Scholarship

Hernandez is proud of the Nidetch Scholarship, noting that this year the center received an all-time-high 52 applications and made four awards. The scholarships, which can be awarded to an undergraduate for four consecutive years, are available to students who demonstrate financial need and have overcome hardships.

Raquel O'Neill, '03 BA Social Work and '06 Master of Social Work, was once one of those scholarship recipients. Today she is the interim director of UNLV's Disability Resource Center and helps assess the applications.

O'Neill had low vision from the time she was born and completely lost her sight at age 15. "That was extremely isolating," she recalled. On the other hand, "going to college was really liberating." She found that at UNLV what mattered was how smart you were and whether you were willing to work hard.

Receiving a Nidetch Scholarship, along with other financial aid, helped pay for much of her undergraduate education, as well as the purchase of expensive learning technology devices to help with the extensive reading and writing that is integral to obtaining a college education.

A Personal Touch

As much as she appreciated the financial assistance, O'Neill said she also valued the personal touch that came with the Nidetch Scholarship. "Jean and I were pen pals," she said. "Her only requirement was that you had to write to her -- not email -- pen and paper. Every semester she expected at least one letter telling (her) how you were doing."

The last letter O'Neill received from Nidetch was in 2008, after Nidetch had moved to Florida to be near family. "I thought it was the sweetest thing. She actually learned Braille.

"Jean was the sweetest lady ever -- just so personal," O'Neill recalled. "You never would have known she ran a huge organization."