Tears rolled freely from Vicki Dorsett Hayes’ eyes as she watched her grandson, 34-year-old Ryan Sylvester, receive his white coat, marking the beginning of medical school journey.

“It’s almost unbelievable. I’m getting emotional because … he has come a long way,” said the retired nurse who helped raised Sylvester. “But I didn’t have to say to him to persevere, because he is a persevering person. I’ve always told him to stay true to God and you will always find a way.”

Sylvester was one of 120 future physicians who began their first day of medical school at the UCF College of Medicine’s traditional White Ceremony held Monday.

The oldest of three children, he was raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs to support her children, battling both lung and colon cancers while Sylvester was a teen-ager.

“I can still remember the fear and uncertainty that I felt while visiting her at the hospital and it’s always been something that stayed with me,” Sylvester said.  “That experience helped sparked my interest in becoming a doctor, and when I am caring for patients I always think about my mother and how I would want someone to take care of her.”

His road to medical school began when he joined the Army at 19 to become a medic. While working several jobs in construction, as a package handler and in retail, he felt inspired to join the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

“Although I had considered joining the military before 9/11, it had mostly been as a way to improving my income or quality of life,” he shared. “That all changed after 9/11. I began to feel more and more that I had a responsibility to serve my country and help those who were already serving.”

After four years, he left the Army and joined the Mayo Clinic in his Jacksonville hometown as a civilian nurse. There he became fascinated by the science behind medicine and found himself constantly asking the doctors questions about the pathophysiology of diseases and how they made diagnoses. That’s when he decided to go back to school full-time to become a doctor.

“Before that, I didn’t realize how much I liked being in the medical field, but I got hooked to working with people and I just loved it,” Sylvester said. “I enjoy the relationships that are formed, both with patients and with coworkers. I like learning about other people, getting to hear their individual stories and it’s honestly difficult to imagine myself doing anything else.”

With a wife, Gracie and three children Aaron, 13, Chloe, 12, and Max, 9, Sylvester felt uncertain about being able to support his family while training to become a doctor.

“I was a bit worried about going to medical school with a family, but the doctors I worked with Mayo Clinic were very supportive and said ‘you can do it’.”

He later enrolled in University of North Florida for undergraduate studies and chose UCF for med school “to be a part of something that is groundbreaking and innovative.”

Now cancer free, Sylvester’s mother Lisa looked on with pride as her son walked across the stage to collect his white coat from Dr. Deborah German, vice president for medical affairs and dean.

“It really brings tears to my eyes, I am so very proud of him,” she said, as she recalled the financial and health challenges she faced as a single mother. “It was really stressful for me to try and provide for them.”

“This is a boy that could not do math in the beginning,” she added, “but he taught himself from the ground up and he has gone full force from here on. I’ve always told him ‘it can be done’ and today is proof.”

As Sylvester begins his medical school journey, he will keep in mind the values ingrained in him from his time in the Army — honor, respect and integrity.

“It’s been a long road to get there and I know I still have a long way to go too,” he said, “so I am going to keep all that in focus. I’m glad to be here and I can’t wait to get started.”