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Did It for the Money: This 32-Year-Old Joined the Army for a $300,000 Dental School Scholarship

Andrew Vo was raised in Huntington Beach, California by his mother, a refugee from Vietnam. 

"My parents immigrated from Vietnam during the Vietnam War, so we didn't have much growing up. We were considered lower class," he says, humbly comparing his own childhood to that of his mother's, who grew up living in a one-bedroom apartment with 9 brothers and sisters. "My mom literally worked every single day of her life to help support the family, her siblings, because she lost her parents at a very young age during the Vietnam War."

Watching her hard work shaped Vo and his ambitions. 

"My mother sacrificed her whole life for her children. Coming from Vietnam to the United States, her number one goal is to make sure that her kids are successful. So for me, seeing my mom struggle every single day, I made it a goal to educate myself to make her proud," he says. "I went through college for four years. After that, I went to dental school for four years, and I really wanted to make her proud."

Today, Vo lives with his fiancé, Marcus in Costa Mesa, California, works as a pediatric dentist and earns roughly $200,000 per year. He joined the military to cover $300,000 in dental school costs.

Paying for dental school

Vo graduated from the University of California, Irvine in 2009 with a degree in economics. After setting his sights on dental school, he was accepted into the University of Southern California's dental surgery program — one of the best in the country. But the six-figure price tag was prohibitive for him and his family. 

Most recent estimates for the total cost of attendance for four years of USC's dental program is $545,876.

"For me, that's a lot of money. I've never even seen that much money in my life," says Vo. "I had to figure out a way to pay for school."

That year, he found the United States Army's Health Professions Scholarship Program which covers the tuition for medical, dental, veterinary, psychiatric nurse practitioner, psychology and optometry programs. In exchange, program participants must serve in the military. Vo applied and was accepted, though he did not receive enough to cover all of his expenses during the four-year program.

Vo received a scholarship worth $300,000 and he borrowed an additional $176,616 to cover his costs. So far, he has paid off roughly $70,000 of his student loans. He served in the Army from 2015 through 2019.

"I never want to hurt anyone"

After graduating from dental school in 2015, Vo began his service in the military. He was first stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado and then at Fort Irwin in California and served as a captain and general dentist in the United States Army Dental Corps.

"I got very homesick initially," Vo remembers. That was "the most challenging part because I had never been separated from my siblings and my mom, and being spoiled in the best weather ever in California, I just missed home."

Plus, Vo had serious personal reservations about joining the armed forces. 

"I was scared because I never want to shoot anyone. I never want to hurt anyone. I hear about the fear of being drafted and or relocated to a different country, and all these things seem very scary. At the end of the day, I asked myself, A, 'How am I going to pay for school?' And B, can I serve our country in a certain way? And the answer was yes and yes," he says. "So I had to push my fears aside and really kind of dive in."

As part of his service he attended basic training where he became an officer and learned how to use a gun and "how to fight if a war broke out."

While Vo saw the scholarship as a means to an end at first, he says he has met many people he admired along the way. 

"I joined the military because I wanted them to pay for my school," he says "I really did it just for the money, for the scholarship to pay for it. But at the end of the day, after my four years, I fell in love with it."

After Vo's service ended in 2019, he joined the Army Reserve. For two weeks every year, he backfills for other Army dentists.

"I've met incredible people — people that have sacrificed their lives," he says. "I get to meet people who are selfless and I think that has probably been one of the best experiences — and a very humbling experience for me."

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