Lam Ho ’08 was 6 years old when he and his family emigrated from Vietnam to the hardscrabble city of Brockton, Mass., where his parents worked on assembly lines and the family ate in soup kitchens and wore hand-me-downs from relatives. The happiest moment of his childhood, Ho says, was at a Christmas dinner for needy children, where he received a train set and a board game—the first toys he ever owned.
But Ho’s home was marked by domestic violence. When he was 8 years old, his parents divorced and he went to live with his paternal grandparents and extended family, also in Brockton. Over the next 10 years, he rarely saw his mother, who lost her savings when the marriage broke up and today still works low-paying jobs while supporting Ho’s two half-sisters.
With more than 4,000 students, Brockton High School is the largest high school in New England, and Ho says he was its first openly gay student. In 1997, he founded the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. Students threw him into lockers and dumped him into trash cans. Some school administrators disapproved of him, as did his own father and other relatives, even though Ho graduated first in his class, had the highest SAT scores and won numerous scholarships before heading to Brown University.
It was through these difficult experiences that Ho resolved to dedicate himself to helping people on the lower rungs of society, especially children and battered women. “My greatest power is my struggle,” says Ho. “In many ways, it’s so integral to who I am. For me to be ashamed of it would paralyze me in the work I do.”
Through high school, college and a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford, Ho founded or worked for a variety of organizations for low-income and disenfranchised people. At Brown, where he simultaneously earned undergraduate and master’s degrees, he managed several community service organizations while working at least 35 hours a week in odd jobs to support himself and help his mother.
At HLS, Ho spends 60 to 90 hours each week on two clinical placements: He is president of the Legal Aid Bureau and also co-supervisor at Reaching Out About Depression (ROAD), a community organization for low-income women affected by mental health problems. At HLS, Ho also founded and directs the Giving Tree to solicit Christmas gifts for children in need, a tradition he previously established at Brown and at Oxford. In September, in recognition of his extraordinary commitment to public interest, Ho was named a recipient of the 13th annual PSLawNet Pro Bono Publico Award.
Ho, who plans to devote his life to poverty law, impact litigation and community organizing, chose HLS because of its resources for public service-minded students, including the loan-forgiveness program. He also wanted to be near his mother.
“She’s the reason I do the work I do,” says Ho. “I realize that things like this happen to women like my mother, but if there had been resources or some legal services, this wouldn’t have happened. … Many [people] don’t have a voice. I have the opportunity to speak for them.”
Yet his family doesn’t approve of his career choice, he says. “Because my parents are immigrants who were extremely poor and suffered through a lot of economic hardships, their definition of success is making money.” On Dec. 7, Ho learned he was one of six HLS students to receive a Skadden Fellowship for 2007, which will support him as he works on his next ambitious project: He is moving to Chicago to establish a community legal clinic for children and families. “I’m always going to do poverty law, for children in particular—because of my childhood.”