Holly McDonald can pinpoint the exact moment her love for the theatre began.

When she was 16, she rode a bus from her small hometown of Keyser, WV, to The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., to watch a production of the musical 42nd Street.

“I’d never seen a stage show of that magnitude,” McDonald says. “It was an enormous adventure for me. I saw the performance on stage and waited outside for the actors to come out, and I just fell in love.”

While studying theatre performance as an undergraduate then graduate student, her love grew when she discovered and explored how theatre can be used for social good. She found herself drawn to performance art that could convey a deeper message and teach a lesson.

Her position as an associate lecturer for theatre studies has allowed her to successfully merge her passion for both performance and social advocacy, and she has created and developed a number of theatre courses focused on social change, including Theatre of Diversity, Queer Theatre, and Women in Western Theatre. According to McDonald, these courses act as a powerful tool to spread social awareness, specifically to young adults.

“I would say that the thing I find most empowering is the opportunity to teach young people, especially the types of courses that I teach,” she says. “That to me is a huge act when we’re talking about social change and social justice because I think that it has to begin with education. You can have all of these ideas, but if they’re not rooted in some kind of truth then I don’t know if they really take you far.”

McDonald maintains an active presence both inside and outside of the School of Performing Arts. She is a member of the NAACP, American Legion Auxiliary, and United Faculty of Florida, as well as a UCF Secular Safe Zone participant. She is also involved in the Women’s and Gender Studies department.

A Journey to Self-Discovery

McDonald credits her parents for instilling a sense of social justice within her from early childhood by “taking an active role in their community and stressing the importance of engagement with others.” It was her mother, in particular, who pushed her to help others whenever given the chance.

“My mother is a huge inspiration. She is someone who would frequently call and give me encouragement,” McDonald says. “She always said to me, ‘Follow your heart and do the right thing.’”

Her mother’s guidance led McDonald to take professional leave about five years ago to write her play, Proclamation of a Multiracial Woman. The semi-autobiographical play, which tells the story of an adopted biracial woman who searches for self-identity, relies heavily on themes from McDonald’s own life. She credits the play for providing her with an opportunity for self-reflection. Like her fictional counterpart, she searched for answers as a mixed-race woman, ultimately finding peace from within.

“My self-discovery has been a journey. [In the play] I compared it to Dorothy [from The Wizard of Oz] because she’s searching for something, and she finds all these things and all this information, but in the end she discovers that all that was already hers to begin with. And that’s what I found.”

Leaving a Legacy

McDonald continues to draw from experience to shape her approach as an instructor. As a college freshman, she found herself feeling overwhelmed and didn’t know if she had chosen the right path. One day she opened her door to find her high school drama teacher standing outside. Her former teacher, who had driven a few hours from out of town, encouraged her to continue pursuing her dreams. Today, McDonald strives to offer her students the same kind of support she received all those years ago.

“I want students to see from day one that I care,” she says. “I say that because that’s what had a huge impact on me.”

McDonald considers teaching and supporting her students as one of her most valuable acts of social change, taking pride in “encouraging them to achieve beyond their expectations and accomplish their dreams.” This is the legacy that she hopes to leave behind, she says.

“UCF students never fail to impress me with their courage to dream, work, play and make the world a better place,” McDonald says. “Challenging students to begin their own journey is what I most value in the pursuit of a world that will one day offer a place at the table for all.”