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Rebel with a very clear cause

Accounting student Jackie Mai defied her father’s wishes and left Vietnam for college in the U.S., a decision that changed her life.

May 10, 2016

Christine Kuglin, professional in residence in the Department of Accounting, recently presented Jackie Mai (right) with the Outstanding Student in the College of Business award. PHOTO: Jessica Taves
Christine Kuglin, professional in residence in the Department of Accounting, recently presented Jackie Mai (right) with the Outstanding Student in the College of Business award. PHOTO: Jessica Taves

Editor's note: This week, we're profiling outstanding students who are graduating on Saturday, May 14. Take a moment to read their stories and remember that, through our work at MSU Denver, we all play a role in our students' success.

Jackie Mai did something unthinkable. At 18 years old, she defied her parents’ wishes and left her home country of Vietnam for the United States. Her goal: to get a better education.

“I didn’t like the way college classes were taught in Vietnam,” she said. “The professor lectured and the students were expected to just sit and listen. There was no discussion and you couldn’t express your opinions.”

But wanting to leave one’s country, and actually being able to do so are different things. For Mai, the greatest hurdle wasn’t external. It was from her family.

“My father was not happy. He’s a very traditional man and had a certain way he wanted me to live,” she recalled. That included studying engineering or aviation at college, so she could follow in his footsteps in the airline industry. He also wanted her to live close by, get married and have a family.

“I’d been doing what he wanted for 18 years,” she said. “It was time to rebel.”

Mai arrived in Denver, Colorado, in 2010 with plans to study marketing at Community College of Denver. She knew almost no one in the Mile High City and found that the British-style English she’d learned in school wasn’t very useful in an American college classroom.

“The first three months were hard. I can remember sitting in a class and not understanding almost anything. The only thing I knew was when the professor told a joke because everyone laughed. I used to smile to try and fit in.”

It wasn’t long before Mai overcame the language barrier and began to excel in her schooling. She decided rather quickly that marketing wasn’t for her, and much to her surprise, found herself gravitating toward accounting, a subject she’d initially written off as boring.

While at CCD, Mai got married and had a child. She took a semester off to attend to the baby, but felt driven to continue with her education.

Mai completed her associate degree at CCD before applying to MSU Denver, where she would study accounting in the 3+2 track, enabling her to work toward her bachelor’s and master’s degree concurrently.

Along the way, she had another child, but rather than slowing her down, the birth motivated her even more. She took six classes during fall and spring semesters, taking advantage of MSU Denver’s flat-rate tuition policy, and five classes in the summers. She also worked part time on campus and had a full-time internship at a local accounting firm.

During her time at the University, Mai got involved in the Volunteering Income Tax Assistance course, in which students assist low-income individuals and families with tax preparation free of charge. She took the class, and then became co-coordinator of the program, under the tutelage of Christine Kuglin, professional in residence in the Department of Accounting.

Mai also assisted Kuglin on research about due diligence and the emerging challenges for professors teaching in VITA programs given recent changes to tax laws and the increased frequency of fraud. Mai created mock tax returns that demonstrated how much money was at stake if due diligence isn’t followed. This week, Kuglin and Mai present their research in Seattle at the American Accounting Association conference.

“I’m amazed by how resilient Jackie is,” said Kuglin. “She never gives up. She has two young children at home and yet I get emails at two in the morning. No matter what comes her way, she stays calm and keeps going.”

Mai finished her accounting program in three years and was named College of Business student of the year for 2015-16. She graduates with a Master of Professional Accountancy on May 14 and begins her first day of work at local firm EKS&H two days later. She is in the midst of taking her Certified Public Accounting exam as well with her ultimate goal being a position in business leadership.

“It’s been a tough journey, but I want to make sure that women who have pressure from their families or their community, or people who think they can’t get a college education because they have children know that it is completely doable,” she said. “MSU Denver offers so much support to nontraditional students who are parents. If you’re willing to work hard, you can do it.”

For Jackie Mai, the hard work has paid off. She even recently began to make amends with her father, who can no longer look at all she has accomplished and feel anything besides pride.

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