By Wendy Sarubbi | March 17, 2017 6:05 pm

At exactly noon Friday, with her teenage daughters at her side, UCF medical student Kesha Thomas (below) took one more deep breath, whispered a prayer and opened an envelope that in the words of her dean would “open the doors to your future.”

The letter read, University of South Florida, Internal Medicine, Thomas’ first choice because the program’s mission is to train young doctors to heal and be community leaders.

Being “part of the solution” is why Thomas came to medical school. She grew up in rural Georgia, one of six children. She’s lived and witnessed health disparities as people struggled to manage diabetes and hypertension without insurance and support from a committed physician. A single mom who lost her apartment last year in a fire, Thomas credits her strength to her faith and her medical school family.

“Everyone was invested in me to see me succeed and that has driven me to continue.” she said. “The time I spent here will always be a milestone in my life. I want to make UCF proud as a physician.”

Thomas was one of 113 UCF medical students and thousands across the nation who matched into residencies Friday. Match Day is the culmination of medical students’ fourth year, when they decide on a specialty and do residency interviews at programs nationwide. They rank their top choices; residency programs do the same. Then a computer matches those lists, something like a computerized dating service. Match results are kept secret until the third Friday in March at noon EST. Only then do graduating seniors know where they will spend the next three to seven years of their lives, depending on their specialty.

The College of Medicine held Match Day outdoors on the Tavistock Green, which was decorated with black and gold lanterns. Students made small hot air balloons that held a sealed match envelope in each basket. With family, friends, children and even dogs surrounding them, students opened their envelopes and screamed, whooped, cheered and cried.

In Florida, UCF students matched at locations such as Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Orlando Health, Shands Hospital at the University of Florida and the University of South Florida. Nationwide, they are going to programs such as Baylor, Brown, Harvard, Mayo Clinic, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Yale.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,” senior Robert Pride said as he learned that he and Renee Domozych, his fiancée, couples matched at Mayo Clinic, he in surgery, she in dermatology. “The fact that it was our No. 1 choice and we’re both going together. It’s really emotional.”

Margaret Capobianco and Melanie Weinstein (above) are the first same-sex couple at the medical school to couples match. They’re going to Indiana University, Capobianco in OB-GYN and Weinstein in pediatrics.

They met in middle school, were best friends in high school, began dating as undergraduates and came to medical school together. Both credited UCF with helping them navigate residency interviews as an open same-sex couple. “We have had nothing but love, support and encouragement from all of our classmates so it has been a really fantastic experience for us,” said Capobianco. “I think it has also emboldened us and made us confident to go into this next chapter of our lives.”

Before coming to medical school, Austin Moats (above) received his undergraduate degree from the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences. He matched into diagnostic radiology at Yale, where he ultimately hopes to treat and research vascular tumors in children. “I feel like everything I’ve done at UCF has brought me to this point,” he said as classmates chanted, Moats, Moats, Moats. “It’s an incredible feeling.”

Match Day was a digital experience for Prisca Takundwa as family members in Zimbabwe watched her match over a live Facebook feed. Takundwa’s journey to medicine began in Africa, detoured to England and finally to the U.S. She’s now going to Yale for a residency in pediatrics. “I absolutely adore children. In Zimbabwe we take in other children as well as part of our families. We don’t really believe in cousins. We are extended family, so that’s why I grew up around a lot of children,” she said. “I think that working with children will allow me to make a life-changing difference.”

Children were also on the mind of Katie Peacock (above) as she wept with joy at the news she’ll do her OB-GYN residency at the University of Utah, her home state. Utah was her first choice so her parents can spend time with their two grandchildren, Vivian, 4, and Aurelia, 6 months. Peacock said she chose OB-GYN because she is passionate about encouraging and empowering women to be healthy and knows first-hand the challenges of raising a family and pursuing a career. She did her undergraduate training at Brigham Young University, where few women pursue medical careers and Peacock said she has tried to be a role model for following your dreams. “I am so grateful for the opportunity to pursue medicine and be a parent,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of my husband, my entire family, my faculty and classmates.”

Class of 2017 students will begin their residencies this summer. They graduate on May 19.

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