After having a child at 14, Jennifer Atton wasn’t sure what her life would be like. She had been the victim of an assault, and she faced challenges well beyond what many teenagers face. She certainly wasn’t thinking about college at the time – she dropped out of high school, got her GED, and went to work at a casino coffee shop at 16 to provide for her child.
As Atton worked, she met coworkers who “had direction in their lives,” and she eventually decided to get an education. She first applied at the College of Southern Nevada.
“I was frightened. I saw these kids who I thought were smarter than me,” she said. “But I ended up getting a 3.7 GPA, and I was proud of that.”
Atton was still raising her child and working full-time – sometimes double shifts. But she wanted to attend UNLV and earn her bachelor’s degree in accounting. While searching for financial aid, she found the Osher Scholarship, which was established for non-traditional students by The Bernard Osher Foundation in San Francisco.
“I got the scholarship, and it has helped me tremendously,” Atton said. “When I started UNLV in 2015, I was so nervous. I thought it was all above me. But I met a lot of students who are in similar circumstances.”
Diversity includes re-entry students
One of the defining characteristics of UNLV’s student body is its diversity. In addition to racial and ethnic diversity, UNLV’s students are slightly older than the average college student – more than 30 percent of the university’s nearly 31,000 students are over 25 years old and identify as “non-traditional” students.
Non-traditional students can have distinguishing characteristics that make earning a college degree more difficult. They are typically older, may have dependent children or other loved ones, serve or have served in the military, or have been formerly incarcerated or otherwise justice-impacted, among other characteristics.
“Non-traditional students are becoming the traditional students,” noted UNLV President Keith E. Whitfield.
In fact, because non-traditional students factor so prominently into UNLV’s student body, the university has resources designed to support them. Among those resources are scholarships.
Last year, 53 students received scholarships specific to non-traditional students – but with 10,000 students who claim this as part of their identity, there’s room for many more.
“We would love to offer more scholarships for non-traditional students as part of UNLV’s mission to support diversity and inclusion,” said Rickey N. McCurry, vice president of the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement and president of the UNLV Foundation.
“Scholarship donors often picture students entering college right out of high school, but that isn’t always possible,” McCurry continued. “The fact is that non-traditional students can be very driven and motivated to earn their degrees.”
Atton took time away from her education when other aspects of life took over – she married, had another child, divorced – but remained determined to finish her degree in accounting. Today, she has an internship with an accounting firm and plans to get her CPA license and maybe a master’s degree, too.
“At times, I didn’t think I would make it,” she said. “The Osher Scholarship has been essential. I’m very grateful. One day I hope that I can also be a donor.”
Making moves easier
UNLV student Elena Holtz credits her re-entry scholarship with enabling her to stay focused on her education through a variety of challenges.
Holtz was born and raised in Russia. She began taking linguistics courses in 2009 after she graduated high school. But shortly thereafter she moved to the U.S. and found herself caught up in a time-consuming process of applying for residency in Maryland. She took one community college course, but needed to go to work – and took several jobs in restaurants and hotels.
"I was still in the immigration process and waiting for my green card so I had to postpone my higher education," she said.
In 2016, she and her husband decided to move to Las Vegas. He wanted to try his hand at professional poker; she thought she would find better work in the hospitality industry here. “Las Vegas felt right. I like it here,” Holtz said.
She got a job at travel company Expedia putting her language skills to work.
“I was looking into UNLV, and I went to an event for transfer students, and found out about these programs for nontraditional students," Holtz said. “I honestly didn’t expect to get a scholarship. When I did, I was so relieved. It helps so much because I don’t have family here. My foundation, my support, my backbone is in Russia.”
Once at UNLV, Holtz began to study hospitality management. Subsequently, she got an internship at McCarran International Airport in the business office – where she hopes to apply after she graduates.
“Getting the scholarship literally changed my life. I’ve been able to be a full-time student since 2019. I don’t have to take extra jobs to make ends meet,” Holtz, now 28, said. She was able to land the scholarship again the following year.
“I will have a little debt when I graduate from previous years, but it has definitely helped me keep up my GPA and keep me motivated… It’s wonderful, and I’m so thankful.”
Learn more about establishing a scholarship at UNLV through the Division of Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement and the UNLV Foundation.