Passion and Promise

Valencia’s Distinguished Graduate is Chasing Her Dreams Far From Florida


Rebecca Nash’s journey to college started, unbelievably, when she dropped out of high school.
Yet Rebecca, who is the 2014-15 Mary Smedley Collier Distinguished Graduate, succeeded by following her passions and her conscience.

Her odyssey started when she dropped out of high school and went to work in a card shop to help support her family when her father was seriously ill.

But selling greeting cards wasn’t fulfilling. So in her free time, Rebecca earned her GED and began volunteering at a domestic violence shelter in Broward County. There, she became a peer facilitator for 14 teenaged girls – many of whom had been kidnapped from their villages in the Democratic Republic of Congo and sold to human traffickers.

Rebecca Nash

Rebecca Nash

Their stories of sexual violence and rape camps – where many were raped by soldiers – pained Rebecca, who’d spent much of her life learning of the Holocaust from her father, a Russian Jew.  “I think what stuck with me was that this wasn’t considered out of the norm,” said Rebecca. “Women are targeted in the Congo.”

She vowed to do something about the atrocities there. After her father recovered, Rebecca moved to Orlando and enrolled at Valencia, living on a bare-bones budget, but passionate about classes. Here, she met Professor Michael Savage, a former British military officer who teaches a course on the history of genocide.

After attending a campus discussion on the current conflict in Syria, Rebecca stopped to speak to Savage, who’d served on the panel. As Rebecca explained her work with the Congolese teens and her desire to help the women of Central Africa, Savage suggested she major in gendercide – the study of genocide targeted specifically against women.

With Savage as her mentor, Rebecca conducted research on the Congo, its relationship to the Rwandan genocide and wrote papers and presented workshops that wowed Valencia professors. After leading a workshop on Africa’s “silenced voices” last fall, she received a standing ovation from students and faculty.

Savage, meanwhile, challenged Rebecca to write papers that would be considered graduate school work.  “He was phenomenal when it came to guiding me,” Rebecca says. “He pushed me harder than I’d ever been pushed.” Savage handed her stacks of books to read, demanded better writing and helped her set a career goal – to become a genocide analyst for the United Nations.

Now 20 years old, Rebecca will skip her final two years of undergraduate study and will start classes this fall as a graduate student at Royal Holloway, University of London, where she has been offered a full scholarship and the chance to study with the world’s leading genocide scholars.

And as the Mary Smedley Collier Distinguished Graduate, Rebecca continues the legacy of Mary Collier, Valencia’s first Distinguished Graduate, who passed away in 2011. Collier, who with her husband built an Orlando auto dealership and raised four children, returned to college in her 50s, earning an A.A. at Valencia in 1982.

As the Distinguished Graduate, Rebecca will also deliver the commencement address and will receive a $1,500 award from the Valencia Foundation.

Mary Smedley Collier, Valencia’s first Distinguished Graduate