Anthony Daniels wakes up every morning with a single word in his mind: focus.

It’s taken the UCF student years to get to this point in his life; a place of acceptance for the abuse he suffered as a child and the disappointments he has had to endure. Now, as the 30-year-old is one semester away from becoming the first person in his family to earn a college degree, he’s grateful for the focus and drive that brought him to this point in his life.

“I’ve learned if you just persevere and have a clear goal and focus,” he says, “you can get through anything.”

A Tumultuous Beginning

Daniels was born in West Palm Beach and was in kindergarten, the oldest of three brothers, when his parents split up and his mother soon after began dating someone who was abusive. He says he went to school with bruises, sometimes a sprained limb, until child services eventually intervened.

He spent two years in foster care while the courts figured out what his fate would be. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the lawyers involved in his case made an impression on him and would play a role later in shaping his career aspirations.

“They seemed like they’re valued members of the community and people cared about what they had to say,” says the legal studies major. “They were kind of like modern-day heroes, saving children or people in need. They just had a very professional and commanding attitude and presence that I respected.”

Once Daniels was deemed a ward of the court, he was placed with his grandmother, who he says welcomed and adored him. Daniels and his youngest brother, an infant at the time who went to live with an aunt and uncle in Massachusetts, kept in contact over the years and saw each other during the holidays. His middle brother stayed with his mother and moved to the western part of the country. Daniels rarely spoke to either of them.

When he graduated from high school, Daniels planned on enlisting in the Air Force to become a pilot. Just before he was set to head to boot camp, he found out he had a blue-red color vision deficiency, which meant no flying.

“I was devastated,” he says. “For a little while I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I felt like I had let my whole family down because I felt like there was a lot of hype and when it didn’t happen, I was crushed. I ended up running away from home because I didn’t want to face it.”

“When I was younger, I wished all the time, ‘Why can’t I just have a normal life?’ Now that I’m older and I’ve learned a little bit more, I think it’s like the furnace for steel — it hardened me and made me a stronger person.”

Longing for More

For a while he did odd jobs. He worked at Panera Bread. He sold nuts and bolts for an industrial-supply company. He was a car salesman for a couple days.

“I just felt a longing for something more,” he says. “I just knew I wanted to go to school and make something of myself.”

He enrolled at St. Johns River State College and eventually transferred to UCF to major in computer science. When he quickly realized the required math classes weren’t for him, he took an aptitude and personality test he found online. Lawyer popped up among the list of professions he matched with, and he started to think about the lawyers from his childhood.

He switched his major to legal studies and nearly every facet of his life started pulling in the right direction, he says. He made the dean’s list. He started seeking counseling through UCF CARES to unpack his childhood trauma. He finally made lasting friendships he always wished for as a kid by playing his favorite game, Dungeons & Dragons. He became engaged in his classes, even when they challenged his weaknesses.

“We have a mock courtroom on the downtown campus so we can get a feel of how it will be. I’ve shied away from public speaking, but it’s been a really fun challenge to see myself progress,” he says. “I found that I like to command that room.”

He says once he pays off his student loans, he would like to offer legal services pro bono to help children who are in the same position he was in as a child. Daniels is most proud of the work it took to get this far, and that his youngest brother has told him he wants to go back to school, just like Daniels did.

“At risk of sounding cliché, they say ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ I definitely agree,” he says. “When I was younger, I wished all the time, ‘Why can’t I just have a normal life?’ Now that I’m older and I’ve learned a little bit more, I think it’s like the furnace for steel — it hardened me and made me a stronger person.”