The model and registered nurse — who makes her SI Swimsuit debut in this year's issue — tells PEOPLE she volunteered as a healthcare worker because she "wanted to give back" to New York City
Maggie Rawlings
Credit: James Macari /SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

The 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue is here, and it features a model-turned-hero who put her career on hold to serve on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.  

On Friday, the iconic franchise unveiled registered nurse Maggie Rawlins as one of the models featured in this year's annual issue, which hits newsstands in July. The appearance marks her SI Swimsuit debut and comes after a busy year of volunteer healthcare work.

"I feel like everyone has a role and responsibility to play during the pandemic," she tells PEOPLE exclusively. "Since I have an active nursing license, I felt like [going back to nursing] was the right thing to do. Additionally, it was in New York City…That city has been so good to me, and I wanted to give back."

Rawlins says jumping back into the healthcare field amid a global pandemic was "nerve-wracking but amazing" because she witnessed frontline workers band together in a time of crisis.

"I didn't take a ton of time to process my emotions," the SI Rookie admits. "It was just focusing on each person in front of me, making sure their needs were met. By the end of my shift, I would go home exhausted, rest, and then wake up and do it all over again. I was only there for a three-week assignment, and I want people to remember that most nurses are still there making those sacrifices."

When asked how she hopes to balance her volunteer work with modeling, Rawlins says, "I see them working together!"

"Through modeling I have an incredible platform to raise awareness about causes I care about. My team at The Lions Talent Management have been so supportive through it all. It's key to have people support you. I always keep my nurses license active so I can volunteer with OneWorld Health, and step in when needed."

Rawlins says the SI Swimsuit experience was much different in light of the pandemic. In year's past, models have jetted off to tropical locations to shoot the coveted spread, but this year they tried to "limit travel and be socially-distanced when possible."

The SI Swimsuit team stayed stateside and partnered with Hard Rock International for the creation of the 2021 issue to "ensure their stays in various locations were COVID safe, following restrictions and regulations while traveling," a rep tells PEOPLE.

Despite the changes, Rawlins says being featured for the first time "feels amazing," adding, "It is rewarding — both as something I've worked for, and as a way to highlight the work of nurses.""

"SI Swimsuit created such an empowering and respectful environment. I really appreciated getting to work with this team. It was such a thrill to be asked to work with such an iconic brand. From the interviews to the shoots, I always felt like they wanted to represent me well!"

"I just love the focus on diversity," she says of the body positive publication. "It is so empowering to work with their team. They are so focused on celebrating women, and I think that is a positive influence on our whole society."

SI Swimsuit will be releasing on new model per day throughout the month of March on its Instagram page — but fans will have to wait until the July launch to learn who will cover this year's issue. 

On Monday, Kate Bock, who has appeared in SI Swimsuit eight times before, was unveiled  as the magazine's first model for the 2021 issue. The 33-year-old Canadian star celebrated the honor on Instagram alongside a photo of herself in a black swimsuit from the shoot.

Kate Bock; Sports Illustrated
Kate Bock
| Credit: James Macari/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED

"SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SWIMSUIT 2021 !!! A new year, the first reveal, my 9th issue !!!" she wrote. "I'm sooo THRILLED to be able to show you a little SNEAK PEEK of my shoot for swimsuit 21 !! This unprecedented year has made me even more grateful for every opportunity in my life with @si_swimsuit right at the top of the list. I CAN'T WAIT FOR YOU GUYS TO SEE WHAT'S COMING !!!! 💛💛💛."

"I'm dreaming from my apartment in sweatpants of being that girl on the beach right now !! #endlesslygrateful#heartfull #siswim," added Bock.