UC Davis Medical Student Shania Bennett wearing her U.S. Air Force fatigues

UC Davis medical student serves in the U.S. Air Force while taking a full course load

Shania Bennett participates in military scholarship program


Shania Bennett endured the academic rigors of her first year of medical school. Then, instead of slowing down for the summer, she did something few UC Davis medical students will ever do. 

UC Davis Medical Student Shania Bennett wearing her U.S. Air Force fatigues
Shania Bennett enrolled at UC Davis School of Medicine and almost simultaneously entered the U.S. Air Force

She braved a military bootcamp known as Officer Training School. 

Bennett was up at 4:30 a.m. daily. She routinely ran 1.5 miles. She crammed dozens of pushups and crunches against a 60-second timer. And she sat in classrooms for endless hours to learn about military service, laws and the mission of the Air Force. 

The Officer Training School was grueling, but she isn’t complaining. Bennett is among a select group of students in the military program that pays her medical school tuition and monthly expenses. In exchange, she provides military service during summers and the first four years of her post-residency career. 

She is part of the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program, or HPSP. 

“At first, it’s a little scary to make the decision to join,” Bennett said. But her devotion for service, combined with the scholarship, put her in a win-win situation: “I’ve been able to live without debt, which is a huge stress that’s been relieved.” 

Stem cell research influences decision to study medicine

Bennett, now a second-year medical student, was raised in Fiddletown, a community of just 250 people in Amador County. As a teenager, she never thought about following her brother into the military, but she found opportunities to shadow surgeons in nearby Jackson and, during college, in faraway Spain. 

She got into San Diego State University as a nursing major, then switched to premed, fascinated by a rare opportunity for 10 undergraduate students to perform stem cell research. The grant, part of Proposition 14, allowed her to work side by side with graduate students, researchers and physicians in search of stem cell treatments. 

“It was really intimidating at first,” Bennett said. “The lab’s principal investigator was an M.D./Ph.D., and the team was so incredibly smart – and here I walked in with almost no experience.” 

She applied to numerous medical schools, unsure if any would want her. She received five acceptance letters, the last being from UC Davis, her dream school. 

Next, she had to learn how to finance her education. That’s when she came across the military program that covers tuition, fees, textbooks, supplies – and even provides a monthly stipend. While on scholarship, students spend 45 days on active duty a year. After graduation, scholars are required to serve one year of active duty for each year they receive the scholarship. 

After consulting with her brother, an airman, Bennett decided to apply for the program, and got in. 

Dedicated to put service before self

Bennett admires the core values of the Air Force, which means she puts service before self, and carries out her tasks with integrity and excellence. “That really resonates with me,” she said. 

Last summer’s training in Montgomery, Alabama, was challenging, yet Bennett scored at the top of her class for physical agility among women, thanks in part to her ability to crank out 54 pushups in a minute. 

Air Force 2nd Lt. Shania Bennett receives a diploma from a flight instructor for having successfully completed Officer Training School Class 22-07
Shania Bennett, on right, in U.S. Air Force uniform, receives a diploma from an instructor for completing Officer Training School

Next summer, when classmates in Sacramento will serve in clinical rotations, she’ll be in Texas for a course in aerospace medicine. 

Shortly after that, Bennett will make some important decisions about her future: She’ll need to choose whether to seek a residency program in the military, or at a traditional civilian academic medical center, or be open to either. 

Bennett aspires to be a surgeon, dermatologist or emergency medicine physician. 

If she chooses to match in the military, the Air Force can send her anywhere after graduation, including keeping her at UC Davis, which has a residency program with David Grant Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield. 

No matter where she does her residency, she’ll end up working in a military setting afterward for a minimum of four years. She will serve in active duty during that time. 

“It’s hard because this could potentially be a 12-year commitment at this point from now,” she said. “But I love to travel, and I love going to new places.”  

Volunteering at Willow Clinic, which serves veterans

She also loves to volunteer. 

Bennett is a co-director of Willow Clinic, a UC Davis School of Medicine student-run clinic that cares for underserved patients in a Salvation Army Building in Sacramento. 

This week, she’s busy with other students preparing to host a Veterans Day Health Fair at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 67, located near UC Davis Medical Center on Stockton Boulevard. 

The free health fair features general health exams, flu shots, vouchers for eyeglasses from VSP, haircuts, clothes, food and coffee.  

The annual event is yet another way that Bennett gives back to the community, and with an emphasis on veterans. 

“I have so much pride for our country and so much love for other service members and sacrifices they make behind the scenes that a lot of people don’t understand,” she said. “I know how blessed I am to be in the United States.”