Meet the seniors nominated for the 2020 Ablah Award

By Madeline Alvarez, Sports Editor

Nine Newman seniors have accepted their nominations for the Ablah Award, which is given to one graduating male student and one graduating female student at the graduation ceremony each year.

The nominees for the Harvey J. Ablah Award are Thor Balavage, Dakota Heard, Jose Rojas-Montero, Koki Takemoto and Micah VanderGriend. The nominees for the Leona J. Ablah Award are Courtney Klaus, Emily Larkin, Martina Viale and Keelah Warden.

The Ablah Award is the most prestigious award bestowed on Newman students, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Rosemary Niedens said in an email.

To be eligible for this award, students must have completed a minimum of 62 residential hours at Newman University, have maintained a 3.0 GPA and have exemplified the mission of Newman through leadership, service and scholarship.

Faculty and staff may submit a letter of recommendation discussing what the nominees have accomplished and their potential to make positive contributions to their communities and professions following graduation, Niedens said.

Nominated students are invited to submit a resume of their academic, service and professional work, Niedens said, and those who do are considered for the awards. The decision process is completed by the President’s Cabinet.

After receiving the award, the winners identify their role models and mentors, she said.

“Images of the Ablah Award winners and their mentors are permanently displayed on the second floor of the Gorges Atrium,” Niedens said.

The winners will be announced at Newman’s online commencement ceremony, which will begin at 3 p.m. on May 8 through livestream on Newman’s graduation webpage here: and on the university’s Facebook page here:

Here is a closer look at the nominees:

Thor Balavage

Balavage, a nursing major, has wrestled for four years at Newman, and has been a residence assistant for three years.

“Newman is the place that made me into the man I am today. I’ve grown in my faith, education and relationships with the people around me,” he said.

He said he is grateful for his family’s support.

“They helped me achieve my dreams and travel halfway across the country, allowed me to risk everything I have and leave home with nothing more than unconditional love and support. They supported and were my number one fan 1,500 miles away,” he said.

Balavage has taken a job at St. Francis Hospital in Wichita in the Trauma Surgical Intensive Care Unit.

Dakota Heard

Heard will be graduating with a Bachelor’s of Science in Secondary Education and a Bachelor’s of Science in History.

Heard said he found many different ways to put his talents to use while at Newman. He has been a member of the NU Chorale for four years and a Troubadour for three. He has also been a T&T Facilitator, First Year Experience (FYE) Leader, a Newman ambassador, and SGA senator.

“I would just like to thank all of the people who have supported me while at Newman. They have made an indescribable impact on my life, and I cannot thank them enough,” Heard said.

Heard is applying to Emporia State University to pursue a Master’s degree in Library Science. He is also planning to find a job teaching either high school or middle school history/social studies in Wichita or Topeka.

Jose Rojas-Montero

Rojas-Montero is majoring in nursing and said that he is excited to start his dream career in the pediatric unit at Wesley Medical Center after graduation.

Rojas-Montero has been the president of the Multicultural Leadership Organization, vice president of Kaleidoscope and member of many other clubs. He has worked as a peer tutor, an admissions ambassador, and a biology and nursing lab assistant, as well as an international student orientation leader.

He was part of the initial group of Diversity Round Table Ambassadors. In the past year, he was a brand ambassador for the bookstore and was involved in SGA. He’s also been involved with the Nursing Club as a public relations chair and in coordinating the pairings in the Peers as Mentors program.

“...Since day one, Newman introduced me to people like my advisers, faculty and staff that believed in me and inspired me to find my voice as a leader and my love for advocacy,” he said.

Koki Takemoto

Takemoto has been a collegiate triathlete, a mathematics tutor and a treasurer of the Campus Activities Board.

“I enjoyed my college life at Newman University,” he said. “I shall be grateful to everyone in this community, especially to my coach and teammates.”

He will attend the University of Kansas to pursue a Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry.

“I suppose no one has ever expected to end the year like this, but I believe we can get over this. As a future chemist, I would like to share my favorite quote attributed to Thomas Carlyle, ‘No pressure, no diamonds,’” he said.

Micah VanderGriend

VanderGriend will graduate Magna Sum Laude with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biology and a concentration in Pre-Medicine.

VanderGriend said that he appreciates the opportunities and life experiences that Newman has offered to him.

“As I work to further my education, I understand how theology, the arts and philosophy complement medicine,” he said.

After graduating, VanderGriend plans to either attend medical school at Rocky Vista College of Osteopathic Medicine or pursue a Masters in Public Health from the University of Kansas.

VanderGriend has been a member of the Newman University Medical Professions Club and was president during the 2019-2020 academic year. He has also been a member of the Gardening Club and was vice president during the 2019-2020 academic year. He has been involved with SGA, the Recycling Club and the Swing Dance Club and was a First-Year Experience leader, a T&T facilitator, a biology research assistant, a microbiology teaching assistant and the assistant to the director for the Investigative Summer STEM Program. He has also been the vice president and the president of the National Society of Leadership.

Emily Larkin

Larkin, who is double majoring in communication and theatre with a minor in journalism, is a first generation college student and will graduate from the Honors Program.

“My time at Newman has been some of the best years of my life,” she said. “I've met some of the most incredible people in this time and learned a whole lot, not only about myself, but about how to interact with other people…”

Larkin has accepted a position at Newman as an admissions counselor for first-time students and will start after graduation.

Larkin has been involved in SGA for three years and was the president of the organization for the 2019-2020 academic year. She has been a writer and editor for The Vantage, the Head Writing Coach, a T&T honors facilitator, a student ambassador, a student writer for University Relations, Editor-In-Chief of this year’s Coelacanth and a poetry editor in past years, a secretary and member for the Newman Theatre Club and a member of Chorale.

Keelah Warden

Warden, a Cardinal Newman Scholar, said she has learned in more ways than just academically during her time at Newman.

“Coming here, I have truly grown immensely as a person,” she said. “I have gained knowledge in my field, but the real growth comes from everything else. I have gained more compassion, empathy and heart of service.”

Warden was an FYE leader as a sophomore before moving up to director last year and the first half of this year. She also picks up recycling around campus and tutors at the Runway Learning Center. When Newman still offered it, she was a part of the concert and pep band.

Warden is a nursing major and has accepted a position in CCU at Wesley. Her long-term goal is to specialize in geriatrics and help improve the lives of the elderly, she said.

Courtney Klaus

Klaus is double majoring in communication and history with a minor in journalism and will be attending the University of Notre Dame Law School in the fall.

Klaus said the university has supported and encouraged her to pursue her dreams and to become a leader.

“The investment this university puts in you, if you are willing to make the most of it, is unparalleled,” she said.

Klaus has written for The Vantage for four years and has been Editor-In-Chief for the past two years. She has also been involved in the Honors Program and SGA. She has been a resident assistant and a student ambassador, and has been a member of History Club, Future Legal Professionals of Newman, pep band and was a T&T facilitator for one year.

Martina Viale

Viale said that, as a first-generation college student as well as an international student, her time at Newman has been challenging but fun and has given her the opportunity to grow.

“It was an amazing opportunity to really show myself that I was capable of doing whatever I put my mind into,” she said.

Viale has been on the executive boards of the Multicultural Leadership Organization, the former International Student Association, and The Newman University Musical Arts Club. She has also been part of SGA, the Newman Chorale and the Troubadours. She has also been an FYE leader and a T&T facilitator.

Viale is double majoring in management and marketing with a minor in entrepreneurship. She has accepted a job at Newman and will be joining the Admissions Team as an admissions counselor for first-time students.