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Graduate ready for new challenges

TUCSON Ariz. — Before graduation from the University of Arizona May 10 26-year-old Mai Nguyen stood among a group of people who had been there for her during the past nine years as she moved from Vietnam earned a college education despite her blindness and now looks with promise toward her future.
Photo courtesy Mai NguyenMai Nguyen center gathers on her graduation day from the University of Arizona with the many people — including senior missionaries — who made her education possible. Mai who is blind received a masters degree.
Her support group is mainly senior LDS humanitarian missionaries from throughout the U.S. who served in Vietnam in the late 1990s. Each who was touched by Mais spirit and abilities had a feeling that she had a special purpose and took an interest in her and helped her achieve her goals. Each one also made the trip to be with her on graduation day.
Mai was born to rice farmers and because of limited educational opportunities for the blind started school at age 12. However at 15 she had already taught herself English by listening to radio broadcasts.
Elder John H. Groberg of the Seventy met her when he was serving as Asia Area president and was impressed with Mai and her abilities.
I thought Theres a brilliant mind; it should be utilized he said.
Mai had entered an English-speaking contest in which Sister Joan Woodward was helping as a judge. Missionaries serving in Vietnam arent allowed to proselyte but they can teach English. Sister Woodward offered to tutor Mai and being touched by her spirit took a special interest in this young woman.
I knew that (Mai) was the reason I had been sent to Vietnam said Sister Woodward.
When Sister Woodward neared the completion of her missionary service she introduced Mai to Elizabeth Jerry Jones and her companion Marie M.D. Aplanalp who were new missionaries.
The sister missionaries and another couple Hal and Davona Davis under Elder Grobergs direction continued teaching Mai and realizing the limited opportunities for education and employment Mai would have in Vietnam worked toward bringing her to the United States.
Elder Groberg said generally missionaries arent supposed to bring people home with them from their missions but in Mais case he felt an exception was needed.
You could say it was a spiritual premonition he said. We needed to give her a chance.
It was a good thing he added For her and for the cause in Vietnam.
It took nearly 18 months to make arrangements help Mai get a passport and find financial support but when Sister Jones returned home to North Carolina in 1998 Mai was with her leaving in Vietnam her family which was supportive of her new opportunity.
The local paper in Littleton N.C. had been printing Sister Jones missionary letters detailing her experiences in Vietnam and her efforts to bring Mai to the U.S. so the small community was excited to meet the 17-year-old girl and support her in her educational goals even sponsoring a golf tournament to raise funds.
Mai attended the Overbrook School for the Blind in Philadelphia Pa. living at the school but spending one weekend a month with Sister Jones.
Sister Jones said Mai worked hard excelled in school and also learned to play the piano.
The next year Mai moved to Elma Wash. to live with Sister Woodward while attending Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver. As an international student she could only attend one year and wasnt able to graduate with her peers because of a lack of credits. However because of her outstanding grades she was asked to be the schools valedictorian.
She went on to South Puget Sound Community College where she continued to excel even though blind materials were limited and Sister Woodward read aloud most of Mais studies.
Sister Woodward who has four children eight grandchildren and two great- grandchildren considers Mai part of her own family.
An article ran in the newspaper explaining that Mais educational funds were running out. A local couple Ralph and Susan Gilbert read the article and offered to pay Mais tuition as she finished her associate degree and went on to earn her undergraduate degree at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Wash.
Upon graduating with honors she was offered a full-ride scholarship to the University of Arizona to attend a two-year masters program in Special Education with emphasis in teaching the visually impaired. The only blind student in the program she earned a 3.8 GPA out of a possible 4.0.
In Tucson she met another missionary. This time it was Diana Martin a CES missionary from California who has two blind children of her own. Sister Martin helped Mai who lived alone in an apartment near campus with shopping and errands.
Mai is grateful for all those who have helped her.
Without the help I received I would never have gotten this far she said. It would have been impossible.
Through donations she has also been able to return home several times to visit her family.
Mai said she and her family are traditionally Buddhist like nearly 95 percent of Vietnamese. I believe that the Lord has had a hand in (my life) she said. There has been a higher power guiding me and directing me.
During graduation activities she asked for a priesthood blessing from John Henrie of St. George Utah who along with his wife Carolyn were directors for humanitarian service in Vietnam and also became closely associated with Mai.
Sister Henrie said it has been a joy to see change in Mais life. She has developed the ability to help other people she said. And for all the people that she met along the way; there were no coincidences.
Mai is applying for jobs and plans to teach blind students staying in the U.S. for at least five years as part of her scholarship agreement. I want to help others like I have received help she said. Its a good way for me to pay back.

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