Submitted by Natalie Bruzda, University of Nevada Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS–For veterans returning from deployments and years of active military service, enrolling in and succeeding at college, and transitioning to civilian life, can be a daunting task. Add in a worldwide pandemic and the corresponding isolation, the transition can become even tougher.
It’s something that UNLV student and U.S. Air Force veteran Andrew Ho understood firsthand when he took on the role of president of Rebel Vets in January 2020 — just two months before the world shut down.
“His leadership has been phenomenal during this entire time,” said Ross Bryant, executive director of Military and Veterans Services at UNLV. “He deliberately led his team with a service to community mindset, reaching out to veterans safely and getting them connected as a way to combat feelings of isolation, despair, and loneliness.”
Ho was recognized this past weekend as the nation’s 2020 Student Veteran of the Year by Student Veterans of America.
“I’m still in shock,” Ho said. “I’m honored and humbled at the same time.”
After seven years in the U.S. Air Force, and deployments to Kuwait and Niger, Ho left the military in Fall 2017 and enrolled at UNLV for the subsequent spring semester.
At the time, Ho was taking classes in business and hospitality, wanting to build on his experience with the services career field in the U.S. Air Force, where he served as a military cook, and oversaw the functioning of fitness centers and dining and lodging facilities.
Also at that time, Ho was looking for a way to connect.
“Like many other veterans, transitioning into college wasn’t as easy for me,” he said. “So I gravitated to the military population on campus, and it helped to create a sense of belonging and camaraderie that I missed from being in the service.”
He soon realized that he wanted to do the same for other student veterans on campus, so he joined PAVE, a peer-to-peer mentoring program within UNLV’s Military and Veteran Services Center. At the same time, he realized that he found a passion for health care, and enrolled in the university’s psychology program.
“I wanted to pay it forward and actively engage with incoming student vets from across majors and around campus — linking them with campus and community resources,” said Ho, adding that from there, he gravitated toward Rebel Vets, an organization whose mission is to empower student veterans.
“I was sold,” he said.
He slowly moved his way up the organization, starting out first as a general member, and then on to secretary, and then finally was elected president in January 2020.
But then the pandemic hit.
“With any organization, the pandemic had a huge impact,” Ho said. “That person-to-person connection was disconnected, and we had to think fast.”
Rebel Vets provided professional development and mental health courses in a virtual format with help from military-connected partners in the community. Ho organized a weekly, socially distanced hike for student veterans, and volunteer opportunities with organizations like Three Square, Share Village, and Bowling with Blue. Other community partners include organizations like Merging Vets and Players, Horses 4 Heroes, Caesars Salute, UNLV CSUN, and Adopt-A-Cop.
Ho has also organized events that have allowed members of Rebel Vets to advocate for student veteran concerns, and he’s working on plans with fellow members to create a veterans lounge on campus — a one-stop-shop where student veterans “can feel welcome, supported, and ready to make it happen at UNLV,” Ho said.
“Personally, this award reaffirms that I’m heading in the right direction and further inspires me to do great things and make a difference,” he said. “It opens my eyes to allow me to see how much we as veterans mean to the Las Vegas community. And that makes me think about expanding our vision. Who else can we connect with? Who else can we help, who is not being heard?”
Ho, who graduated in December 2020 with an undergraduate degree in psychology, is still enrolled so that he can stay active in Rebel Vets. The class he’s taking currently will help prepare him for UNLV’s graduate program in occupational therapy, which he’ll begin this fall.
“I’m looking to strive for something higher and more challenging,” he said. “I want to push my limits.”
Ho is the second UNLV student veteran to earn the designation of Student Veteran of the Year from Student Veterans of America. Alexandria Sawin was named the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year.
“I’m thrilled, and it’s a credit to the entire veteran community effort that we have built here at UNLV,” Bryant said. “It’s been nine years of taking care of 1,800 veterans every semester, and getting resources to veterans in need. We’ve always maintained a sense of continued service, and since being at UNLV, but particularly this past year, Andrew was a big part of that — being on the front lines, taking care of people.”
Ho’s award also comes on the heels of another recent recognition for the university’s student veteran community.
UNLV was recently named one of the nation’s best colleges for veterans. The university ranked 7th in Viqtory’s annual Military Friendly Schools rankings for schools of its size. The rankings, which will be published in the May issue of G.I. Jobs magazine, measure student retention, graduation, job placement, loan repayment, persistence and loan default rates for student veterans at more than 1,200 schools nationwide.
Bryant said that this recognition, too, is a reflection of the efforts of the past nine years.
In 2012, UNLV established the Military & Veteran Services Center (MVSC) to better serve its growing student veteran and military family community by developing a welcoming, veteran-friendly campus environment that fosters academic and personal success. The center is staffed with veterans and VA Education Benefit–experienced staff to assist more than 1,800 veterans, dependents, active duty service members, National Guard members and reservists with answers to questions concerning admissions, VA Education Benefit enrollment certification, financial aid resources, campus and community support services, local veteran discounted-housing programs and various networks for veteran employment opportunities.
“The entire MVSC team and the Rebel Vets have selfless service leaders focused on helping others,” Bryant said. “It is always rewarding when the team receives recognition.”