Some might see going to school full-time with a small child at home as a challenge.
Alexandria Sawin sees it as an asset.
The Air Force veteran and self-described “nerd” said she learned many valuable life skills during her seven years on active duty that have carried over into her role as a college student and former president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas student veterans’ organization. But it’s her 4-year-old daughter, Isabelle, that has reinforced the time management skills and patience she’s needed to be successful at both – even if it meant getting up at 5 a.m. to get her fed and ready for the day before she made the 40-minute commute to campus.
“Having a family – I don’t know if that’s an obstacle because it keeps me in check,” she said.
So maybe it’s little Isabelle whom Sawin, 27, has to thank for her latest accomplishment. On Saturday, the nonprofit Student Veterans of America named her the 2018 Student Veteran of the Year, the organization’s highest individual honor. Her SVA chapter, the UNLV Rebel Vets, was also a finalist for Chapter of the Year.
Jared Lyon, president of Student Veterans of America, praised Sawin’s leadership and advocacy work, both the at the school and national level working with SVA.
“She is everything we look for in our leaders and truly deserves this award,” he said.
In an interview just hours before she found out she’d won the award, Sawin was humble about her prospects.
Before moving to Concord, Massachusetts, for her husband’s job in December, she led Rebel Vets for two semesters, becoming president after initially losing her bid for secretary of the organization in a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors that determined a tied vote.
Since then, she helped plan and oversee the Rebel Vets’ first Operation Battle Born Ruck March, an eight-day, 370-mile journey through the Nevada desert last May in which student veterans and community members carried nearly 7,000 dog tags of post-9/11 service members killed in action across the state. She has also traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby in favor of legislation to help student veterans on Capitol Hill.
But Sawin, who continues her military service as a technical sergeant in the Reserves, wasn’t sure what made her stand out among the other finalists and said it’s really her team that should be getting the credit.
“I’m just the face of the organization. I didn’t do everything. Everything that we did was done through group effort,” she said.
Still, winning “would mean a lot just because it gets more people knowing about Rebel Vets or just Student Veterans of America in general,” she said. “To get that out there and have that at your university, it gets people coming to see our organization or wanting to be a part of it. It gets more student veterans out, and it gets more student veterans involved, and that helps them be successful academically.”
“We had an incredible group of Student Veteran of the Year candidates this year but Alex absolutely stood out from the crowd,” Lyon said in an email. “She is the first woman president of the Rebel Vets and did all of this amazing work while excelling in school and as a mom, too!"
Randy Dexter, who was president of Rebel Vets before Sawin, said he’s followed her work since his own out-of-state move last year and couldn’t be prouder of her for this recognition.
He said the best advice he ever received as chapter president was that his most important job would be finding a replacement. And even though Sawin was hesitant to accept the post at first because of all of her other responsibilities, Dexter is confident he made the right choice.
“She’s got that ability to connect with people and be compassionate and help. SVA always talks about servant leadership, and she’s the perfect servant leader. ... For me, that’s what I was looking for in someone,” he said. “She embraced this and she gave it 150 percent the whole way through."
Sawin said she’s definitely had her slip-ups as a leader. She’s even yelled at her members before, which she still regrets.
“In the military it’s very structured. You know what time you’re supposed to be there, you know what uniform you’re wearing, you get these really set rules that you have to follow. And as an NCO, a non-commissioned officer, that’s how you run your organization, whereas out in the civilian world, in this Rebel Vets organization, it’s volunteer-based. You can’t talk to them the way that you talk to them in the military,” she said.
That’s where her mom-learned patience has come in handy.
“I mean, you have to be really patient with a kid,” she said. “It goes back to that, just being patient with them and being understanding.”
Sawin plans to take off the spring semester to settle into her new home and apply to schools to continue her degree in biology so she can go on to medical school to become a radiologist.
Even though that means 10 more years of classes when she’s already older than her peers, she’s not deterred. She’s glad she waited to attend college after the military, rather than going to school before joining, and is grateful to have had the time to mature and get her priorities straight.
“If I would’ve went to college at 18, I would’ve dropped out,” she said. Now, “I’m that nerd in the front row like, ‘Oh my gosh, please tell me everything that you know,’ and then there’s kids in the back hung over in morning classes on a Wednesday.’”
And having a family means an additional priority as she looks for a new school.
Aside from accepting her transfer credits and having an established student veteran organization, the school needs to offer a schedule conducive to being a mom, Sawin said.
“(Isabelle) starts school this next year, so I want to be able to go to school full time, but also make sure that I’m home to drop her off and pick her up.”