Love of languages inspired Jacob to chase his dreams

Co-founder of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Gender Alliance awarded the 2022 Chancellor Robert Hope Memorial Prize

Jacob May has made the most of his five years at UOW.

Growing up in a bilingual household, Jacob May was exposed to the beauty and the possibility of language. His was an English-speaking household, but with a mother who is Norwegian, he grew up in an environment that treasured the diversity of other cultures and languages.

It was a formative experience that would go on to influence the direction of Jacob’s life and career.

Last month, he graduated from the University of Wollongong (UOW) with a double degree in Bachelor of Laws (Class I Honours) and Bachelor of Arts (Distinction), majoring in Japanese.

Currently based in Norway, Jacob was unable to attend his graduation ceremony from the Faculty of Business and Law and the Faculty of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. However, he was named the annual recipient of the Chancellor Robert Hope Memorial Prize, UOW’s most prestigious honour for students.

The medal celebrates the life and contribution of the University’s founding Chancellor, Robert Hope. It is awarded to a student who demonstrates exceptional academic performance, outstanding leadership, and a significant contribution to the University or wider community.

Jacob featured on the Dean’s Merit List for both of his degrees, with a Weighted Average Mark of 83.95. Proficient in Norwegian, English and Japanese, Jacob was in 2021 awarded the  Japan Society of New South Wales prize for his performance in Advanced Japanese.

In addition to his academic achievements, Jacob has also devoted immense amounts of his time to volunteering across a spectrum of causes, including animal welfare, helping other law students with their studies, and donating his time to the UOW Simulated Patients Program. In 2021, Jacob was elected to the position of Vice President for Education, of the University of Wollongong Law Students’ Society (UOWLSS), where he worked both locally and nationally to understand and enhance student wellbeing, mentorship, and university culture.

In 2022, as Vice President for Student Experiences, and with the help of his team, he continued to create events and resources which helped to guide first year students, promoted the bond between students and staff, and highlighted UOW students’ sense of community and collaboration.

But among his proudest moments was establishing the Illawarra Shoalhaven Gender Alliance. More on that later.

While linguistics and the law maybe do not seem naturally compatible, Jacob found a way to seamlessly bridge the divide between the two areas of interest.

Jacob May stands on a lawn on UOWs Wollongong Campus “Growing up with a bilingual parent helped me to see English from an outside perspective, and to consider how we use language. My curiosity led from there,” Jacob said of his decision to study linguistics.

“My journey to law was a different one altogether. I really didn't know much about the field before starting, but I saw a challenge, a lot of problem solving - and yes, maybe a bit of linguistics - so I thought I would try my hand at it, thinking that I could do something computer science based if it didn't work out. Turns out, I loved the depth, challenge, and practical nature of law studies, so I stuck with it.” 

While he was born in Norway, and moved to Australia as an infant, Jacob spent his childhood at Broulee, on the South Coast of NSW. His decision to study at UOW was crystallised at a Discovery Day, when Dr Julia Quilter, a lecturer in the School of Law, challenged the students present to critique a piece of legislation. Jacob remembers vividly thinking, “I want to study here”.

His university experience took place over five years and was as packed with volunteering and social activities as it was with study.

“If I had to describe my university experience, the first thing I will say is ‘not easy’, directly followed up with ‘completely worth it’. University is challenging, and so there are, of course, some times when you're pushed to your limits. But that is what a good university and good teachers do. It's how we reach our full potential. It's not about showing up to get our piece of paper, but about helping us expand our knowledge, our style of thinking, and our skills in research, writing, teamwork, responsibility, among others. 

I feel that UOW did a great job at that. At UOW, professors and students really worked together to reach our mutual goals, and it shows. 

“This extended out of the classroom as well. I have made many, many friends at UOW, both with other students, and with staff as well. I am currently working with the law faculty, and have joined professors, classmates, seniors, and juniors alike for coffees, study, and games.” 

Rather than struggle with the pressure of juggling the many balls he had in the air, Jacob seemed to thrive in the dynamic environment. It laid the foundation for being able to handle high-pressure situations after finishing university.

“Some of the stressful times are actually highlights for me,” he says, “Feeling stuck in my thesis, or working on a group task after a major surgery, nervously preparing for a presentation or exam day. It was nerve-wracking at the time, but in retrospect, really exciting as those are the moments that helped me improve.

“I collaborated with friends and teachers, really focused, and used my problem-solving skills and knowledge in a way that mattered. Being exposed to those situations has helped me to feel comfortable with short-term stresses, like nervousness, deadlines and academic challenges.”

"At UOW, professors and students really worked together to reach our mutual goals, and it shows." 

Jacob’s volunteering, his passion for social justice, began in an organic way, but quickly became fundamental to the way he sees the world.

“I really don’t have any reason for volunteering other than ‘why not?’. It started when some first-year students asked me for study tips. I was a second-year student and  had some tips I could share. Who wouldn’t try and help in that situation? From there, I signed up for mentoring, and before long I joined the Law Students’ Society.”

He undertook a part-time job at the Illawarra Sexual Health Service, which initially did not align with his academic interests. But the role introduced Jacob to the barriers – societal, legal, and medical – faced by trans and gender-diverse people. One of the issues that really struck Jacob was that many medical practitioners had never even spoken to a trans patient and were not trained in trans medicine. The desire to find a solution to this gaping hole in the system led to the formation of the Illawarra Shoalhaven Gender Alliance (ISGA), a health promotion charity that aims to support the health and wellbeing of the local trans and gender diverse community.

Last year, ISGA, alongside UOW’s Ally Network, held the first Trans and Friends Festival Illawarra, which saw more than 1000 trans and gender diverse people, and their families and friends, come together to celebrate the community.

“By helping to give trans people, their families, and their doctors, a bit of education and support, we can solve so many of the issues that trans people face every day,” says Jacob, who co-founded the ISGA alongside UOW’s own Dr Megan Thomas, Dr Alison Rutherford, and Kiara Fraser.

“For some doctors, it was as simple as reminding them that they can ask for someone’s pronouns if they’re unsure. If we can help one patient and doctor to have a more positive experience, that could mean the difference between that patient trusting the medical system when it really matters.

“Knowing how intersectional law is, we've started working legal education into some of our educational goals at ISGA. For example, we had a session at our Trans and Friends Festival where we helped people understand their rights at work, at school, and in the home, and where to find affordable and trustworthy legal support. Currently, we mostly focus on the medical aspects of gender diversity, but law is baked into everything, from workplace discrimination to medical consent, so my law degree definitely helps me appreciate these situations.” 

Megan Thomas, Alison Rutherford, Jacob May  Dr Megan Thomas, Jacob May and Dr Alison Rutherford, co-founders of the ISGA. Photo: Paul Jones

Jacob is incredibly proud of the work that ISGA has undertaken so far. That earlier notion of ‘why not’ has evolved into a passion that drives Jacob every day, and across every aspect of his work.

“A little bit of effort can help someone in a profound way. When you have that attitude, I think that there are a lot of people that want to help you do your thing, regardless of which field you're volunteering in. It all started out small, but it's the people around me that helped elevate my desire to help into full-blown charity work,” he says.

Receiving the Robert Hope Medal, which in part recognises his immense contribution the community, has been a defining moment for Jacob. Although he is now in Norway, where he will remain for the foreseeable future undertaking further language study, he was thrilled to be recognised. In addition to receiving his own monetary prize, Jacob will be given $3000 to donate to a cause of his choice – ISGA.

“I never set out to earn an award. It wasn’t the reason I worked so hard for five years, but think that means it is all the more valuable to me. I set out to be a good student and a good person, and the fact that UOW recognised me feels incredible. It made sense to donate the money to the Illawarra Shoalhaven Gender Alliance. Almost everything we have done at ISGA has been at our own cost or supported by local businesses and volunteers (UOW included). And we've made a difference in people's lives. I am so excited to see how much of a difference we can make now that we have an actual budget and resources.”

"A little bit of effort can help someone in a profound way."

UOW Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President (Academic and Student Life) Professor Theo Farrell congratulated Jacob on receiving the Robert Hope Memorial Prize.

“Jacob captures everything that is wonderful about UOW and about the power of education to open doors and change lives. He is a hard-working student who has seized every opportunity that has come his way, but also has devoted his time to helping others. His work will continue to have an impact, particularly among trans and gender diverse people, long after his graduation from UOW,” Professor Farrell said.

“Jacob’s academic results, combined with his leadership, initiative and the engagement he has demonstrated in his community pursuits, have made him a worthy recipient of the Robert Hope Memorial Prize.”

Moving forward, Jacob hopes to incorporate that thread of social justice throughout his work in the law. He will take on a graduate position with MinterEllison next year and working to gain his practicing certificate.

“I have been doing quite a bit of work in immigration law, which I love. My graduate program will also allow me to try out some other areas of law, and I never throw away an opportunity to try something new.

“I’m not too sure where my career will take me, but I don’t see myself stopping my volunteer work any time soon. Whether my primary career is in social justice or not, I feel I will always be able to put aside a little bit of time to help out where it's needed.”

For the moment though, Jacob is continuing to focus on what he loves – linguistics.

“I am taking the time to do something incredibly important to me. I have moved back to Norway to reconnect with the other half of my language and culture. I was intending for this to be a gap year, to rest and travel after a full-on five years of study, work and volunteering, but I have just signed up for linguistics classes and the Norwegian language certification.

“It shows that my passion for language and learning is truly part of who I am.”