UCF has nearly 1,600 student veterans, a population that has grown from about 200 in 2006. One of these veterans is junior hospitality management major and Sergeant First Class (retired) Paul Hiltibidal. A long way from his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, he dreams of a management career at Disney and is currently studying theme park management at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management.

His desire to “protect and provide the magic experience to future generations” sounds fitting given his military service. Hiltibidal joined the military to protect fellow Americans and their freedoms, but in the next phase of his life, he wants to help keep the magic alive here at home.

Upon entering the U.S. Army in 1999, he was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry paratrooper. It was pre-9/11 America and he spent the majority of his time in training, traveling to other U.S. locations and abroad, including Germany, Bulgaria, Denmark, The Netherlands and South Korea. After 9/11, Hiltibidal was stationed with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and life alternated between 12 to 16 months of training and 12 to 18 months in Afghanistan or Iraq. More than two million Americans have served in these countries and like Hiltibidal, these veterans view the world much differently than others.

“Needless to say, it gave me a very different perspective of the world from the average student,” said Hiltibidal. “I firmly believe all students could benefit from seeing the disadvantaged conditions that the majority of the world has to live in, in order to more greatly appreciate the things we have as Americans.”

After leaving the military, Hiltibidal’s childhood dream of living in Florida finally came true. Through Homes on the Homefront, an Operation Homefront program that awards donated homes to deserving military families around the country, he and his wife moved to Kissimmee in February 2013.

After retiring from the Army, Hiltibidal decided to focus on another passion. His love for Disney led him to UCF’s engineering program, but he encountered some difficulties due to a head injury he received in Afghanistan.

“I had an issue with transposing both numbers and signs,” he said. “So I sat down and looked at my military experience, decided that I should pursue a career in management and combined that with my love of Disney to arrive here [at Rosen College].”

After completing his hospitality management degree in Spring 2016, Hiltibidal hopes to one day become a high-level manager or executive at the Walt Disney World Resort and be part of its legendary magic. Although military service equipped him with valuable skills like interpersonal communication, planning, operation, cost reduction and professionalism, he believes the most valuable skill he learned was discipline. His advice to fellow students—master it.

“The best advice I can give to anyone is work continuously on mastering self-discipline,” he said. “Specifically, be on time (or 10 minutes early), follow directions, maintain a professional demeanor, practice humility. Know what you need to do and then force yourself to do it without excuse.”