Second Lt. Jessica Smith’s family history in the military stretches back hundreds of years—before the United States was even a country. Every generation of her family has had at least one member in the armed forces since the French and Indian War, she says.
Despite that family tradition, Smith was not always set on joining the military.
Now in the beginning of her third year of medical school at the UT Health Science Center, Smith discovered her love for medicine while working as an emergency medical technician during undergraduate school at Pennsylvania State University. She decided she wanted to go to medical school, but like many aspiring medical students, the cost was a concern.
“When I was in undergrad, I worked six jobs in order to graduate debt free,” Smith says. “I learned a lot, and I was able to manage it, but I was like, I’m not doing this for medical school.”
That’s when focusing on military medicine became more appealing to her. After learning about the scholarship opportunities the military branches offer, continuing her family’s legacy was even more desirable.
“My dad had a great experience with the military and spoke about it a lot, and it seemed like a great adventure to me,” she says.
A Pennsylvania native whose parents moved to Tennessee during her undergrad years, Smith began attending UTHSC through the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), a service scholarship offered by the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force to students who attend medical and dental schools. HPSP funds the students’ tuition, fees, health insurance, and other costs, and pays them a monthly living stipend. Once school is completed, they pledge to work one year in the branch of service in which they were commissioned for each year they received the scholarship.
“It’s been really helpful in covering expenses I didn’t realize I would have in medical school,” Smith says. “And the stipend is really nice because, while my friends are crammed into apartments with roommates, I get to live alone because the Air Force gives me enough money to pay for my own apartment.”
Smith says HPSP has a threefold benefit, helping “you as a person, you as a community, and you in the future.”
As an individual, she says the program allows her to focus on her education without the added stress of the real world.
“You get to truly sit there and learn and not have to worry about how to be an adult,” she says.
The program also requires participants to undergo their military branch’s officer training school. According to Smith, her training was a life-changing experience.
“I learned a lot about myself and how I act as a leader, and I think that’s incredibly important for my growth as a human being, as a leader in the community, and as a physician. I wouldn’t trade that for the world,” she says.
According to Smith, HPSP benefits the community by providing more military-trained doctors. She says practicing military medicine is an incomparable experience in the patient volume the physicians treat and the exposure they receive to various situations.
“Every physician I’ve ever talked to has told me, when doctors come from the military, you know they’re competent because they have to be competent.”
HPSP provides future benefits for the students by presenting them with military career options. The students can choose from three pathways after graduating: They can participate in a military residency, meaning they are active duty while completing their residency training; they can defer their active duty and complete a civilian residency, similar to nonmilitary graduates; or they can participate in a civilian-sponsored program, which Smith described as a blend of the other two options.
During her time in the program, Smith has been able to mentor other military students. One of them is 2nd Lt. Hayden Hall, who says he joined the program to combine a newfound interest in medicine with an attraction to the military that dates to his childhood, when he learned about his family’s military history. Smith guided Hall through the HPSP application progress and presided over his commissioning ceremony last spring in UTHSC’s Historic Quadrangle.
“We’ve got a pretty tight-knit group of people who look after each other because the HPSP route is very divergent from a traditional medical path,” Hall says. “So, we help each other with navigating everything and with understanding, for example, how you impress military doctors to get a residency slot, how you do your rounds or how to best present yourself during required military internships.”
Since 2015, UTHSC has been recognized as a VETS Campus, a higher education institution that facilitates the transition from service in the military to enrollment in a university. Many programs at UTHSC aid veterans to further their academic careers.
To provide even more support and resources for military students, Smith and Hall helped start a student organization called the Military Medicine Interest Group, aimed at connecting HPSP students and former service members. The group has hosted military recruiters and retired military physicians and plans to invite more alumni to connect with current students and share their experience with them.
After graduating and fulfilling their required duty, both Smith and Hall plan to continue their careers in the Air Force, armed with the medical knowledge they are learning and the military connections they are receiving at UTHSC.
“I’m a doctor and a soldier; those two hats are something that I take a lot of pride in, and they both push me to be better,” Hall says. “I not only have a duty to be there for my patients and to learn the most that I can for them, but I also have a duty to perform well so that I can provide for our soldiers, and that is something I take very seriously.”
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2023 issue of Our Tennessee magazine.