Rising senior Nehemia Abel’s path to Mary Washington started with a refugee camp in eastern Africa.
Wanting their children to have a better future, his parents applied for resettlement in the United States. Though his family was one of the few who were fortunate to be chosen, they still endured hardships along the way.
Those experiences shaped Abel. Since enrolling at UMW, he’s strived to make it a more welcoming place for underrepresented students like himself. In just a few years, he has become a campus leader, working to unify and empower the student body and make the University and Fredericksburg communities more inclusive.
The marketing major has fueled that passion into an organization that he co-founded with his older brother to assist local Burundian youth who wish to pursue higher education and careers.
This work has earned Abel the 2019-20 Mary Washington Citizenship Award for Diversity Leadership.
The President’s Community Advisory Committee on Diversity presents this annual award to a rising senior at UMW. The recipient serves as an ambassador for diversity, a peer mentor to underrepresented students and a voice for those populations on campus.
“Nehemia has sought out many opportunities to learn about different cultures; expand and cultivate his network base with his peers, faculty and staff, as well as individuals in the broader Fredericksburg community; and become a better person and leader,” said Marion Sanford, director of the James Farmer Multicultural Center (JFMC). “It has been impressive to see him take his own life experiences and use them as a motivation and platform to affect positive social change on campus.”
Participating in such JFMC events as Colors of Africa and the Kwanzaa celebration gave Abel the chance to build relationships with students who shared his interest in diversity and multiculturalism. He pursued leadership roles with the African Student Union and Brothers of a New Direction and has served as a RISE mentor for the last two years.
At Mary Washington, Abel has been a resident assistant to upperclass living communities and a member of the College of Business Student Advisory Board. As the client relations assistant at UMW’s Center for Economic Development, Abel was on a student team that established a business pitch competition, Eagle Innovation.
Buoyed by the StartUpUMW program, Abel worked with his brother, Alexander Abel, to create UBUMWE, which means unity in Kirundi, the language spoken in Burundi. It’s a network that connects aspiring students to community leaders, assists them with scholarships and mentorships as well as arranging college visits and provides free school supplies.
He’s already had several success stories. With the help of the nonprofit, his younger brother, Gadsoni Abel ’23, was accepted to Mary Washington. Starting this fall, he’ll be enrolled in classes and will play for the men’s varsity soccer team.
“I enjoy giving these students a platform to showcase their talents,” said Abel, who’s thrilled to help young people facing the same struggles he experienced. “It’s been rewarding watching them succeed in these endeavors.”
In his spare time, Abel volunteers locally and has built a home for a refugee family through Habitat for Humanity and served Fredericksburg’s homeless population through Micah Ecumenical Ministries. He has also interned with Fredericksburg Baptist Church, serving fellow Burundian refugees in the community.
After graduation, Abel hopes to get his MBA and work for an organization that supports developing countries. But for now, he’s focused on his senior year. He finds it particularly meaningful that UMW will celebrate the 100th anniversary of civil rights icon and former UMW Professor James Farmer’s birth the same year he graduates.
“It’s a pleasure to follow in [Farmer’s] footsteps as an advocate for diversity,” Abel said. “It’s because of sacrifices made by individuals like him that I am able to receive a proper education.”
This year, Abel plans to continue advocating for students of color and encouraging the UMW community to celebrate their differences and recognize their similarities.
“As my favorite Maya Angelou poem goes,” he says, “‘we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.'”