“I came to UCF determined to improve the world, but I had no idea how,” says Rebekah May, who will graduate this week from UCF’s College of Nursing.

She quickly figured out how. After arriving at UCF from Spring Hill, Tennessee, May got involved on campus. First, she volunteered with the UCF Police Department as a LEAD Scholar and then served as a co-leader at an afterschool club at the Orange County Public Schools Academic Center for Excellence in the Parramore neighborhood in downtown Orlando. That is when the then environmental studies major began to realize her true calling.

“My eyes were opened to the disparities even 20 minutes away from me, and I knew I wanted to help people who needed help the most.”

At that time, May was taking an anatomy class and discovered a passion.

“I loved the biological mystery of the human body, and how I could always keep learning,” she says. “I found the intersection of that purpose and interest in nursing.”

A Calling to Care

Once in the competitive, upper-division traditional bachelor’s in nursing program at the Orlando campus, May’s calling came into a clearer focus. In her first public health clinical, she worked with local service organizations as part of the college’s service-learning curriculum.

“I continued working with those organizations after that clinical, and I joined the President’s Leadership Council to advocate for further UCF volunteer awareness and involvement,” says May, who was inducted this spring and awarded the 2024 Order of Pegasus — UCF’s highest student honor. “Since I discovered what I believe to be my purpose, I am intent to make a difference in any way that I can.”

Rebekah MayShe found further inspiration from attending the UCF MedPact Global Health Conference last spring. After attending a workshop, May together with UCF College of Medicine student Allen Partono were inspired to found a human-rights clinic in Central Florida.

The clinic seeks to provide asylum seekers with free medical affidavits to support their court cases. The interdisciplinary effort also provides real-world experience for student volunteers to connect with law, nursing, medicine, social work and psychology.

This summer, May plans to transition to a mentor role at the clinic and pass it to new leadership for future UCF students to learn about global health and serve local asylum seekers.

“This project has incredible potential, and I want nothing more than to develop it and hand it off to similarly passionate students to nurture,” she says.

A Curiosity for Research

In addition to service and volunteer activities, the Burnett Honors Scholar maintained a 3.9 GPA in the rigorous nursing program and conducted original research.

May’s Honors Undergraduate Thesis, “Breakfast Skipping in College Students and its Associations with Eating Behaviors,” was presented at Harvard’s National Collegiate Research Conference this past winter.

Last month, she orally presented her two-stage observational study at the National Conference of Undergraduate Research in California.

“It was an honor to share the podium with the next leaders in research,” she says.

She plans to continue this research after graduation, seeking additional opportunities to present findings and working with her research chair, Assistant Professor Shante Jeune to publish her original research in a peer-reviewed dietetics journal.

A Passion for Service

Her bachelor’s in nursing degree from UCF is just the beginning for May.

“I will make my mentors proud, and I will pay it forward,” she says. “I am determined to empower nurses in low-resource settings so we can develop self-sufficient, community-based healthcare networks to enhance the accessibility of care for all.”

May has many plans after graduation to accomplish her goals and the drive to be successful in her endeavors. First, she will complete a summer public health internship with Osceola Community Health Services to learn more about the effective application of public health principles to marginalized populations in Osceola County through advocacy, outreach, and hands-on clinical work.

Next, May will attend the American Enterprise Institute’s Summer Honors Program in Washington, D.C., where she will be a part of a small undergraduate cohort discussing regional poverty and economic mobility in the U.S.

“I will represent a nursing perspective and add first-hand experience with Orlando’s regional poverty to the conversation,” she says.

She will also take the national licensing exam to officially become a registered nurse, and in that new role, will serve as a medical team volunteer at the Muscular Dystrophy Association Florida Elks Youth Camp in Umatilla.

In August, she will move a little closer to home and begin a nurse residency at Duke Regional Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Rebekah May and College of Nursing Dean Mary Lou Sole digging shovels into dirt with the word "Groundbreaking" on a banner in front of them
Rebekah May and College of Nursing Dean Mary Lou Sole at the groundbreaking of the Dr. Phillips Nursing Pavilion in January 2024.

To continue to become an effective nurse leader on a global scale, May plans to apply to the Rhodes, Marshall and Fulbright scholarship programs and continue her volunteer work to make a difference in global health. She also plans to further her education, eventually becoming a nurse practitioner and earning a doctoral degree in epidemiology of public health.

May credits UCF College of Nursing’s curriculum, faculty and instructors to finding her calling and to supporting her success.

“I had no idea when I began the program that I would be in a position to see so much hardship and have the potential to do so much good,” she says. “I will always be a Knight nurse because my big dream started here.”

Her advice to future students, “Never participate in anything that you are not passionate about. It is the only way that you can be honest in front of the mirror or a committee and say that you spent your time worthwhile.”