Every year, one graduating male and one graduating female are selected from several nominees for Newman University’s most prestigious undergraduate awards: the Ablah Awards.
The 2022 Leona J. Ablah Award was presented to the winning female recipient, Kelly Mai, during the Newman Commencement ceremony May 6.
About the Newman University Ablah Awards
Harvey J. Ablah exemplified the spirit of the American dream. Supported by his wife, Leona, Harvey became a successful entrepreneur, pioneering the fast food chain concept and leading the family hotel supply business.
To honor Harvey, and to perpetuate his vision of entrepreneurship, his daughter Geri, along with her husband, Fran Jabara, established the Harvey J. Ablah Award at Newman in 1994. In 1996, they added the Leona J. Ablah Award to provide recognition for one outstanding female and one outstanding male graduate. The Ablah Award includes a monetary stipend and is presented to two graduating seniors who have a minimum grade point average of 3.0, who exemplify the mission and spirit of Newman University, and who show promise to make a strong, positive contribution to society.
Kelly Mai’s ‘complete 180’
Like Steven Nguyen, winner of the Harvey J. Ablah Award, Mai is a first-generation, Vietnamese American college student. Mai graduated as a double major in psychology and criminal justice with a minor in art.
One of her nominators wrote that Mai’s journey at Newman has been “transformational.”
“When Kelly arrived on campus four years ago, she was shy, worried and unsure of herself,” another nominator wrote. “But that girl did a complete 180.”
“Kelly still carries a quiet, calm presence in all she does but she has blossomed into an exceptional student leader,” said Vice President of Academic Affairs Alden Stout at the Hartman Arena podium. “She has set an inspiring example for her younger siblings and for the entire Newman family.”
Mai also remembers her freshman self as “a really shy girl who just wanted to fit in.” As a result, Mai said she was completely in shock when she heard her name called as the 2022 female Ablah Award winner.
“I am just so humbled and very grateful that I’m able to be where I am today,” Mai said. “I couldn’t have been here without God, all of my mentors and bosses, my family, my friends, Campus Ministry, Student Life and the University Relations team. I especially have to acknowledge the fact that God really led me here today.”
She continued, “It really means a lot, because my parents and especially my dad really sacrificed everything for me to get a better education. All I can say is that I’m so grateful.”
A cherished experience at Newman
Though Mai said mental health was a regular struggle during her undergraduate days, the Newman community helped her through that challenge.
“Everyone at Newman gave me a safe place to just be vulnerable and open,” she said. “I was able to just be myself on campus because everyone was kind and welcoming. I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else for college but Newman.”
Mai is a firm believer that God led her to Newman, and through his blessings, Mai was given the ability to step outside of her comfort zone in transformative ways.
Mai made a positive impact on the university through her participation and leadership roles in Campus Activities Board, Pi Gamma Mu Honor Society and Gardening Club. She was an active student in the Newman art department, the Vantage student newspaper, the Multicultural Leadership Organization, Asian Student Association and Campus Ministry.
Despite her seemingly countless extracurricular activities, Mai also worked as a graphic designer for the University Relations office for three of her four years at Newman. She credits her student worker position for allowing her to be as involved as she was on campus.
“Being able to stay on campus a lot more and experience work-life gave me a better perspective of how hardworking the staff and faculty are,” Mai said. “It gives me more appreciation towards them and I’ve had so much fun working as a student worker.”
A personal mission of service
Without financial aid and the ASC Service Award, Mai said she may not have gotten the chance to experience life at Newman. Her humble beginnings are what inspire her to pay it forward through regular service.
Off-campus, Mai volunteers for HumanKind Ministries and recently completed her season as a tax preparer for United Way of the Plains.
Her senior ASC capstone project also tapped into her regular volunteer service with two nonprofits that provide basic needs to Wichita’s homeless population: Footprints ICT and Friends of Friends.
“I gathered a lot of hygiene products from various locations, helped organize and distribute them through those nonprofits and ShowerUp Wichita to emphasize the importance of assisting our homeless population,” Mai said.
She added, “I’ve been raised in a low-income family and have lived in really low-income neighborhoods, so I’ve seen so many homeless people walking on my streets. I just wanted to do something about it. It’s my goal to be a source of hope for them.”
Mai said no matter what work she pursues in the future, she will always volunteer.
“It’s my favorite thing to do,” she said.
Mai plans to enjoy a gap year before pursuing a master’s in social work.
“I’m really hoping to spend more time with my family, watch my siblings grow, but also be able to do some nonprofit work,” she said.
Homeless outreach will continue to be a part of her regular service, however, Mai hopes to one day broaden the population she serves by volunteering or working with juvenile delinquents, individuals in foster care or persons with disabilities.
“I’m so grateful for my time here at Newman. This will always be my favorite place. I don’t know what else I can say besides thank you for everything the people of Newman have done for me.”
Discover what’s possible at Newman University
Founded in 1933, Newman University is grounded in Catholic values and traditions, yet is respectful of all faith traditions. At Newman you’ll find people, programs, organizations and activities designed to educate your mind and inspire your spirit.