Keith Connolly has spent his life serving his fellow man and being a bit of a daredevil. For nine years he served in the U.S. Navy, protecting Americans while driving submarines and then teaching others to do the same.

Friday, he embarks on a new chapter in his life. Connolly joins his pioneering classmates as they become the University of Central Florida’s first graduating medical school class. He’ll begin serving patients with bone injuries in July.

Connolly, 32, and his classmates took a chance on a brand new school in 2009. An inspiring dean and faculty members who had experience starting medical schools made a good pitch. But enrolling at UCF was not for the weak of heart. It would be an adventure. Students wouldn’t find out if the school earned national accreditation until three months before graduation.

The community pitched in and raised more than $6.5 million to offer each charter class member a full scholarship that would cover tuition and living expenses for all four years. It was a way to entice some of the best students around the country to come to Orlando.

The students’ risk paid off. The school received full accreditation; the students have posted impressive national test scores and won a series of awards and recognitions. And they’ve done much more. They’ve pushed the envelope in helping to create the school’s innovative curriculum, integrate cutting-edge technology into daily lessons, establish traditions for future classes and lay the foundation for a medical education system that could become the model of the future.

“I think what the community did for our class was absolutely astounding,” Connolly said. “Thank you is hardly sufficient, but hopefully the contributions of our class and the trajectory of our newly founded school will show our gratitude.  I don’t believe the purpose of these scholarships was limited to creating excellent home-grown doctors for Central Florida, but rather to lay a foundation for recruiting the highest-quality medical students who will benefit the Central Florida community for decades to come.”

Connolly took his pioneering work seriously. He balanced his academics, extracurricular activities and volunteering all while raising his three-year-old daughter, Kora, and 11-month-old son, Liam. He credits his wife with the heavy lifting at home, and said family and serving others are an essential part of his identity.

Not having the average $200,000 debt after medical school does something more than just securing his children’s future.

“What it does for my future is provide me the incentive to not only contribute to medicine through my practice, but to aspire to provide others with the same opportunities that I’ve had,” he said.

Connolly will be completing his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. He says he likes his specialty because he’ll be able to help people such as injured athletes and returning veterans regain movement and take back control of their lives. While he’ll miss Orlando, Pennsylvania was his first choice because family is nearby.

“I will never forget how special it was to be a part of this charter class and community,” he said. “There were so many times that someone in the community, in or out of the medical field, would be excited to meet a member of the charter class.  I really felt like part of the community, and it made me want to work that much harder to do everything I could to make this a premier medical school.”