When California native Alexandria Sawin graduated from high school in 2009, her family was in economic turmoil. Her dad, a construction worker, and her mom, a real estate agent, lost their jobs in the Great Recession.
“I didn’t want to have them support me,” she said. “My sister was in the Air Force, and she convinced me it was the way to go.”
Sawin served in the Air Force until 2016, then joined the Air Force Reserve at Nellis Air Force Base. Both of Sawin’s sisters are in the Air Force, and her father served in the Marines during the Vietnam War.
In January 2017, she enrolled at UNLV, where she served as the first woman president of the Rebel Vets organization.
On Sunday, the 27-year-old was named the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year, the highest individual honor given by the nonprofit Student Veterans of America.
“I was awestruck,” Sawin said Monday. “The military gave me a ton of great qualities I didn’t know I had before. I was able to adapt to crazy situations and bounce back from failure. It helped shape me to the leader I am today.”
One of the biggest challenges veterans face going back to school is social isolation, she said. And for Sawin, the chance to represent Student Veterans of America’s estimated 1.1 million student veterans nationwide is a way to show them their potential.
“The biggest thing is just being able to get the opportunity to show what student veterans do around the nation and how much they help other students that are transitioning from the military to higher education,” she said. “Just getting that message out there, to show that student veterans are doing great in school, is tremendous to me.”
Sawin credits the director of UNLV’s Military and Veteran Services Center, Ross Bryant, for being a mentor who helped her through the obstacles of being a mom, a wife, reservist and premedical student.
Bryant said that under Sawin’s leadership, the Rebel Vets had about 20 percent higher participation at events, and she helped coordinate events on campus that honored World War II veterans.
“She’s inspiring, and she inspires others to step up and participate,” Bryant said of Sawin. “She’s a great example of the talented veterans that are coming to UNLV and really is the epitome as far as being different, daring and diverse.”
Sawin was selected to be one of 101 chapter leaders of Student Veterans of America to attend the group’s Leadership Institute in September in Washington, D.C. She also was invited to speak to Vice President Mike Pence at Nellis Air Force Base about student veteran issues, as well as attend a White House summit to discuss legislation that would affect veterans.
“All this time, she was taking care of her 3-year-old daughter, and making dean’s list four semesters in a row,” Bryant said. “She’s exceptional.”
Before Memorial Day, Sawin also organized a march across Nevada, in which 187 veterans participated in carrying 6,950 dog tags of fallen service members.
The Southern Nevada group walked 162 miles to Goldfield, Nevada, before passing off the dog tags to go the rest of the way.
Sawin herself carried one of the 30-pound bags of dog tags for 45 miles, Bryant said.
“She had blisters like all of us, but she got out there and walked extra with other people,” he said. “She’s humbled by this honor, and she is so deserving.”
Student Veterans of America has more than 1,500 chapters at colleges across the U.S. and four countries overseas. Sawin was picked out of 10 finalists and was the first UNLV student to be recognized by the organization.
In 2017, Bryant was honored as Chapter Advisor of the Year.
Jared Lyon, president and CEO of Student Veterans of America, said veterans make up about 4 percent students enrolled in U.S. colleges.
After finishing her last semester at UNLV in December, Sawin moved to New Hampshire with her husband, Philip. They have a 4-year-old daughter, Isabelle. She plans to complete the last two years of her biology degree starting in the fall.
“Alexandria has proved her service to her country and has really set herself apart to mobilize veterans,” said Lyon, who received the honor in 2011. “It’s a pretty cool feeling to acknowledge those efforts, and to show all student veterans the potential for success.”