After performing the George Balanchine ballet “Western Symphony” in front of a sellout crowd, Molly Yeo sat at the edge of her bed in her Nashville apartment in silence. She had rehearsed the ballet for a long time, and dreamed of dancing Balanchine’s choreography for years. But something didn’t feel right.

“Suddenly, just a question filled my mind, and that was, ‘What is all this for?’” Yeo said.

Immediately, she began to answer her own question: This was her childhood dream, and she had worked too hard for too long to give it all up.

“I realized that wasn't an answer. It was a deflection. I couldn't answer the question, ‘What is the greater purpose or meaning in what I was doing?’” Yeo said.

The question nagged at her for weeks, and would eventually lead her to the University of Virginia. 

But before making the major life change and heading to Charlottesville, she needed to talk to her mom.

Yeo seemed to be meeting nurses everywhere she went, at church and even sharing Uber rides. They all seemed to love their work and the meaning they found in it. On the phone with her mother, who lived in New York at the time, Yeo confided she couldn’t stop thinking about nursing.

“While I was on the phone with her, she just went on the internet and looked at the New York State Board of Nursing, and she looked at the requirements to become a nurse,” Yeo said. “The No. 1 criteria to be a nurse was to be of good moral character. She read that to me on the phone, and that was the green light that I was waiting for.”

Yeo had focused on ballet since childhood, even teaching herself to dance en pointe when her parents’ careers took them to Indonesia. She wasn’t particularly interested in science and didn’t have any of the prerequisites to become a nurse. But she knew she cared about other people and wanted to help make them well.

“That was enough for me, that there would be a career where the No. 1 qualification for the job was personal integrity, and that was something that I felt was missing in my dancing that I wanted,” Yeo said. 

The Makings of a Dancer

Yeo’s earliest memory is of the ballet “Romeo and Juliet.” At age 5, her mother took her to see her first professional performance, and she was rapt. Even though “Romeo and Juliet” is an especially long ballet, with three acts, Yeo remembers being at the edge of her seat throughout the performance.

“I thought, ‘This is the most glamorous thing in the world, and if this is a job, I want to do this for a career,’” Yeo said.

There were even older women in the audience who noticed how the performance grabbed Yeo and remarked to her mother how much she seemed to love ballet. Her mother had recently put Yeo in ballet classes.

“I was a very serious child in that ballet class,” Yeo said.

Unlike most other kids who take dance lessons or get put on a soccer team, Yeo set about learning ballet positions and how to hold herself in class with discipline. She had a sense of how long it would take to develop the right technique and build the foot and leg muscles necessary to dance en pointe.

She was in “pretty intensive training” up until she was 11. Two weeks after she got her pointe shoes—usually considered a pivotal moment in a dancer’s career—her family moved from Chapel Hill, North Carolina to Indonesia. There was an expectation that ballet might fall to the wayside, but Yeo continued to practice.

A few years later, her family returned to the United States and Yeo started training at Duke University through the school’s continuing education program. She danced at Duke during the day before going to her local dance studio at night. At 18, she moved to New York to train at the Joffrey Ballet School. After graduating, she moved to Nashville to dance with the Nashville Ballet.

“Becoming a professional ballet dancer was truly my wildest childhood dream come true,” Yeo said.

Over the course of her career, Yeo danced “all the classics,” including “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” She loved to dance, or else she wouldn’t have trained, six days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, for years. But she realized she spent most of her life focused on her body, what it could do and how it looked. She wanted more than that.

Coming to Grounds

When she left the Nashville Ballet, Yeo decided she would move in with her parents in New York and go to nursing school there. Soon after she arrived, COVID-19 hit the city, and her father accepted a job in Northern Virginia.

“I think I’ll follow them,’” Yeo said.

And so she did. She was accepted to two nursing schools, Georgetown University’s and UVA’s School of Nursing. UVA offered her a scholarship, so the decision to come to the University was easy.

“I was very attracted to what I saw, and now being a student here, I’ve found this culture of excellence,” Yeo said.

She didn’t know she would find a career in nursing that didn’t involve being in a hospital. She took a public health course with nursing professor Emma Mitchell at the same time as she was doing clinical rotations.

One particularly memorable patient she cared for was hospitalized due to an HPV-related cancer. There’s a vaccine series that can prevent the high-risk types of HPV that are associated with six types of cancer, though it is only approved for men and women up to age 26, or women in discussion with health care providers up to age 45.

Yeo began to wonder about the best way to use these preventative measures, and how she and other medical professionals could communicate to vaccine-hesitant people.

“The questions that I had really weren’t able to be answered at the bedside. They were better answered through research,” Yeo said.

She pored over studies, sought out Mitchell to discuss what she found and started working on her own research for her Distinguished Majors thesis.

“She really gets an interest and follows through with finding out what the implications are,” Mitchell said. “She has this inquisitiveness that will make her a great nurse scientist.”

In order to follow through with that interest, Yeo plans to return to UVA to pursue a doctoral degree in the fall. As an undergraduate, she has gained confidence in herself and learned how to be “clinically competent, culturally sensitive, compassionate and excellent,” she said.

“Excellent is really the word that I keep coming back to when I describe the culture here, of what I found from faculty, from classmates, from the standard that is held for us as nursing students.”