Updated February 28, 2021 - 5:21 pm
After seven years in the U.S. Air Force, Andrew Ho faced a new challenge in the civilian world: adapting to life as a college student at UNLV.
“Like many service members, sometimes it’s not the easiest transition,” he said. “I found myself lost at my first semester.”
But he found a population of other veterans there and got involved at the university. “That helped me create a sense of belonging,” he said — a kind of camaraderie he missed from his time in the Air Force.
Ho was named the 2020 Student Veteran of the Year last weekend during Student Veterans of America’s 13th annual national conference, which was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 29-year-old, who is president of Rebel Vets Organization, UNLV’s chapter of Student Veterans of America, said Wednesday he’s honored and humbled to receive the award.
“Basically, all I can pretty much say is I’m still in shock,” he said.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in December from UNLV. He’s taking one class until he starts this summer in the university’s doctoral program in occupational therapy.
Student Veterans of America is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 2008 with more than 1,500 chapters at college and university campuses.
For Rebel Vets, it’s not the first national accolade the chapter has received. Alexandria Sawin won the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year award, and Ross Bryant was recognized as chapter adviser of the year several years ago.
Ho will serve as the voice and face of the national organization’s chapter leaders in Washington, D.C., said Abby Kinch, vice president of programs and services for Student Veterans of America.
Kinch said that she has known Ho for a while and that it wasn’t specifically his involvement and growth within the organization that led to him clinching the award. What did: “The fact that whatever he learns for himself, he’ll turn around and pass around to other people around here.”
That’s a quality that’s certainly needed everywhere, Kinch said, and definitely one that represents the organization.
The student veteran of the year is generally someone who’s a chapter president and “shown incredibly outstanding leadership over the previous year,” Kinch said.
The organization received about 100 nominations for the 2020 student veteran award. It takes into account factors such as the nominee’s character, scholarship and accomplishments both inside and outside of the chapter.
Ho is a talented, driven young man who’s a great leader by example, said Bryant, executive director of military and veterans services at UNLV.
The university’s Military and Veteran Services Center manages GI Bill educational benefits and payments for more than 1,800 UNLV students who are veterans or family members of veterans.
Rebel Vets is a giant family, Bryant said, providing support such as peer-to-peer mentoring; assistance with the transition to college, study skills and navigating campus; social events; and with help getting a job after graduation.
“All of that is designed to have a sense of community where we can connect with everyone,” he said.
Rebel Vets is an “incredibly active chapter” represented at national events and through programming at UNLV, Kinch said, noting it’s a tightknit group that’s engaged at all levels of the university.
“Additionally, they have a very strong alumni community which helps to support the chapter’s growth,” she said.
‘Not the easiest transition’
Ho grew up in Las Vegas and enlisted in the Air Force in 2010 after graduating from high school. He served as a cook for the majority of his time in the service and finished his contract at Nellis Air Force Base.
He served two six-month deployments overseas: Kuwait in 2014 and Niger in 2017.
Ho enrolled at UNLV shortly after separating from the Air Force in 2017. He slowly transitioned to getting more involved with the university’s veterans organization and became part of a peer advising team where he was able to “start paying it forward,” he said.
Ho has also volunteered since 2018 with the youth mentoring organization Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.
He became the Rebel Vets chapter president in January 2020, just a couple of months before COVID-19-spurred shutdowns. During the pandemic, Rebel Vets has worked with organizations to host classes via videoconferencing for students, including on topics such as professional development and self-care.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, “it was really the darkest period” when people felt the most concerned and isolated, Bryant said.
“Andrew and his team did a great job during the pandemic,” he said.
Ho and fellow students organized socially distanced, mask-wearing hikes on Sundays to allow student veterans to socialize and get out of their house.
“Everything,” Bryant said, “was focused on how to help people in need.”