Assisted by his 3-year-old son Jairus, Army Lt. Anthony Hawkins stuck a gold pin on a giant map to mark Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., where he will begin his emergency medicine residency this summer.
The pinning ceremony at the UCF College of Medicine came during National Match Day, when graduating medical students nationwide learned where they will spend the next three to seven years in training. And for Hawkins, the moment was especially meaningful because it was the next step on his unusual journey to medicine.
“Jairus may not remember the pinning ceremony, but we have pictures, and I will talk to him about it when he is older,” the 33-year-old Hawkins said. “I worked really hard to get here, and I hope it will set a good example for him and my 6-month-old daughter, Winnie.”
Hawkins’ journey to medical school was not like most. At 16, he dropped out of high school to focus on saving his father’s struggling businesses, a music store and later a radio station. Hawkins was the first in his family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and on May 19 he will be the first to earn a medical degree.
“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. And that’s something I want to pass on to my kids.”
Hawkins grew up in rural Carnesville, Ga., the son of a registered nurse and a business owner. When his father had a heart attack, Hawkins decided to quit high school to help save the family businesses, despite his mother’s protests. “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,” he said.
He planned to enroll in an online program to complete his high school studies while working. That never happened. Though he eventually got his GED, a university education seemed unlikely, as his family had used up all its savings on the failed businesses.
So he joined the Army to earn money for college. He was offered training for a combat medic position but had little interest in medicine at the time, so he opted to work in public affairs, hoping to land a civilian communications job later. But in 2010, he was deployed to Haiti to assist with humanitarian efforts after an earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people and left more than 1 million homeless. He was then deployed to Iraq, where he worked in small clinics that served remote villages. The two experiences showed him opportunities to care for others and save lives with special operations medics. But becoming a doctor still 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 returning to his 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 said. “That’s what really pushed me more than ever to make a decision to go to medical school.”
Hawkins left active service and went to Kennesaw State University in Georgia, where he earned an undergraduate degree in biology and made the President’s List three times for having a perfect 4.0 GPA. On May 10, Hawkins will return to Kennesaw State to deliver the commencement address to share his unconventional journey to medical school and motivate graduates to pursue their dreams. Nine days later, he will walk across the stage at UCF’s CFE Arena and collect his medical degree in front of his biggest cheerleaders, his family.
“Fifteen years ago, my mom was devastated that I would never graduate, and now I’m going to be a doctor!” Hawkins said.“My parents and grandparents worked very hard to give my sister and me the opportunity to do things that they weren’t able to do, and that’s what really pushed me to get this far.”