Before medical school, Jason Smith was a corporate investigator who helped catch thieves, but when he clocked out and returned home, he’d think about his day’s work and wonder, “Am I really making a difference in the world?”

As he approaches graduation from UCF’s College of Medicine tomorrow, he no longer wonders. He knows he will begin making that difference as a trained psychiatrist helping mentally ill people find peace.

Smith didn’t follow a traditional path to the College of Medicine. He’d dropped out of college, was a casino dealer, and worked up the ranks in security, risk management and legal compliance at Walmart. He helped make hundreds of arrests for retail theft, including going undercover to catch thieves, and says putting together a criminal case – like a puzzle – was his favorite part of the job.

But after six years leading security efforts at the nation’s giant retailer, he says he decided to pursue something more meaningful — his childhood dream to become a doctor. He used his Walmart 401K for tuition, went back to college, finished a pre-med major in just 18 months, and earned admission to three medical schools. He will graduate May 17 with his UCF M.D. degree at age 38.

He once thought the medical school door might be closed to him because he wasn’t successful in his first attempt at college.

“If you have the desire and determination, you can succeed. You still have the ability to make it.” — Jason Smith, UCF College of Medicine graduate

“But if you have the desire and determination, you can succeed,” he says. “You still have the ability to make it.”

He came to medical school interested in genetics and biomarkers, something that fit his love of biology and chemistry. But then he did his third-year psychiatry clerkship at the Orlando VA Medical Center.

“I saw the connection you have with patients,” he says. “You see as they transform through treatment from being so distressed to being able to find comfort once again.”

So he decided to pursue psychiatry as his specialty. In June, he will enter UCF’s new Psychiatry Residency Program in collaboration with HCA Healthcare, where he’ll care for patients at Osceola Regional Medical Center and again at the Orlando VA.

Smith says he’s thrilled to help build the year-old program, and his faculty advisor, Martin Klapheke, UCF’s assistant dean for medical education, a psychiatrist by training, and the residency’s program director, is happy to have him on board.

“Jason felt a natural fit with members of the VA’s interdisciplinary treatment team, and he found helping patients improve their mental health to be extremely rewarding,” Klapheke says. “His commitment and dedication to serve others help make him a good fit with our new program, which hopes to make a major impact on mental healthcare in Central Florida.”

Klapheke notes that Smith helped others throughout his medical school career. He volunteered at the KNIGHTS student-run free clinic for the underserved, and based on his academic performance, was selected as an academic coach for his medical school peers, providing individual, small and large group tutoring in subjects including pharmacology, biochemistry, genetics and anatomy.

VA patients often thanked Smith for his listening skills and calm, reassuring demeanor. He says he developed those traits during his security career. People caught stealing — whether they are workers or shoppers — are upset, fearful and angry. He’s been threatened and had to wrestle people to the ground. Smith says he may ultimately combine psychiatry with criminal justice by seeking a forensic psychiatry fellowship after his four-year residency training.

In the meantime, Smith wants to help remove the stigma of mental illness and help people understand that seeking help isn’t a sign of weakness. He grew up in the rural community of Elton, Louisiana, which had only one part-time family medicine physician.

He’s seen the impact of poverty and healthcare disparities, people who stole to get money to feed their alcohol and drug addictions, those who wanted and needed mental health counseling, but couldn’t find or afford it.

“Once I complete my training, I’ll almost certainly be the first psychiatrist from Elton,” he says. “I know there will be a lot of questions. I hope I can help de-mystify mental health treatment, help people understand that mental illness – like physical illness – can happen to anybody. I’ll tell them my job is to help people get through a tough time in their lives, to help find answers and treatment.”