But in May, Lieutenant Anthony Hawkins will graduate with his M.D. from the UCF College of Medicine and join Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, WA to complete his residency in emergency medicine, where he wants to help military officers and their families cope with life-and-death emergencies.

Most medical students learn their residency locations on National Match Day in March. But Hawkins participates in the military’s Health Professions Scholarships program, which provides scholarships for M.D. students who agree to serve in the military for one year for each year of support received. Students in the program can match into residencies at military hospitals or do their service after civilian residencies. This year’s military matches were announced December 8. Hawkins said he chose to do his residency in the Army to give back to the institution that gave him the inspiration and discipline to become a physician at UCF.

Growing up in the rural town of Carnesville in Georgia, the son of a registered nurse and a business owner, Hawkins was forced to make some tough decisions as a teen.

With his father’s declining health – he had suffered a heart attack years before – Hawkins decided to quit high school, despite his mother’s protests, to focus on saving his father’s struggling businesses, a music store and later a local AM radio station.

“If I could go back to my 16-year-old self, I would say ‘don’t ever do that’ because the businesses eventually went bankrupt,” Hawkins said.

He planned to enroll in homeschooling to complete his high school studies while working. That never happened. Though he eventually got his GED, a university education seemed farfetched as his family had used up all their savings on the failed businesses.

So he joined the Army to get money for college. He was offered a combat medic position but had little interest in medicine and so opted to work in public affairs. With his experience in station programming and public relations at his father’s radio station, his plan was to serve a few years in the Army and get experience to land a civilian communications job. But that soon changed.

A deployment took him Haiti to assist with humanitarian efforts after the 2010 earthquake. During another deployment to Iraq, he worked in small clinics that served remote villages. He enjoyed helping people, saving lives and the opportunity to work with special operations medics.

But becoming a doctor seemed farfetched for the high school dropout who figured a career as an emergency medical technician was more within his reach.

Then a medic told Hawkins he had the smarts and drive to be a doctor. And several months later, the soldier found himself at the scene of a motorcycle accident while driving back to post with co-workers. The seriously injured rider was on the ground with the motorcycle on top of him while bystanders looked on helplessly.

“I looked at the half a dozen people standing unable to do anything and that’s when it hit me – that I don’t ever want to be in a situation where I am standing with my hands in my pockets because I don’t know what to do,” Hawkins explained. “That’s what really pushed me over the edge to make a decision to go to medical school.”

After leaving the Army, Hawkins earned an undergraduate degree in biology at Kennesaw State University. He made the President’s List three times for having a perfect GPA of 4.0. He became the second in his extended family of over 50 members to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

From there, the UCF College of Medicine was an easy choice. “When I came here to interview, everyone I met felt like they genuinely wanted to be here. Everyone felt like family and that really resonated with me.”

As Hawkins finishes his final semester of medical school, he hopes his journey will be an inspiration to others.

“The fact that I dropped out of high school and now I’m here, it’s kind of cliché to say — you can do whatever you want to do,” Hawkins said. “But truthfully, if you want something bad enough, and you try hard enough, there are not many things that will prevent you from doing it.”