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From high school dropout to Mayo Clinic graduate: How taekwondo helped get one Plano man's life in line

By his own admission, Adam Howard was a "chubby" kid with a curly mess of hair who found that the structure of a traditional education just wasn't working for him.

PLANO, Texas — The Mayo Clinic called me one day last month. 

A representative from the Alix School of Medicine thought there was someone I should meet in Plano

It turns out, he is an inspirational force of nature a lot of people should meet --even though his story starts with him dropping out of the 10th grade.

"I failed the ninth grade once online, by the way -- then I repeated it and passed it and dropped out," Adam Howard told me of his last visit to Frisco's Liberty High School.

By his own admission, Howard was a "chubby" kid with a curly mess of hair who found that the structure of a traditional education just wasn't working for him.

"My childhood was a catastrophe," Howard said. "I didn't have any identity. I didn't have any self-worth."

But, in Plano, he did find something he liked: a Taekwondo studio run by Master Eun Ig Lee.

"He was a little bit lost, sounds like it," Lee recalled of the day they met more than a decade ago. "He was a little bit chubby and a hair was kind of like..." Lee said while waiving his own hands over his head. 

And it was at that studio, with Lee as his new father figure, that Howard's life began to change.

"And I was doing any task I could. Helping with the kicking pads, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming the floor, whatever needed to be done," Howard recalled. "It wasn't just two hours a week or a hobby. It was all day, every day. I live, sleep, eat, and breathe I would dream about teaching. It's the source of motivation for my entire career."

Because his entire career had just gotten an unexpected resurrection.

He pursued his GED. He enrolled in Collin College, then UT Dallas for a degree in neuroscience. A Master's Degree at Brown University was next. But, he says his black belt in Taekwondo made him want even more.

"And I wanted to know the physics behind the techniques," he said. "I wanted to know the anatomy, the biokinetics between why our techniques are structured the way that they are."

If there is such a thing as a stereotypical high school dropout, Howard certainly didn't sound like one anymore.

"Helping them transform confusion into understanding and therefore dignity and autonomy and capacity," he said of his experience with Taekwondo and watching it offer the same metamorphosis for other students. "That was the magic for me. And I wanted to understand it better."

So, next he found himself on the road to Minnesota: the Mayo Clinic, to be exact. He was on his way to medical school. He graduates later this month from the Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine. And he recently learned he will pursue his residency at his other dream school, Duke University.

The "chubby" high school dropout with a black belt in Taekwondo becomes a psychiatrist next month.

"So now I get to go live the dream. I was telling the program director I was beside myself in a stupor of happiness," he said of learning about the next leg of his educational journey. "And I just thanked her for the opportunity and for seeing worth in me that I don't know if I see in myself."

But Master Lee saw something.

"Very, very happy. I'm very proud of him, what he's doing," Lee said. "I know he's going to be next 60, 70 years he's going to change and help make this world much better."

"And Master Lee was my father figure. He raised me to be who I am," Howard said while also thanking his own parents for their financial and emotional support. "That saved my life. And it saved the life of so many kids," he said of the Taekwondo studio.

On that Saturday at the Plano Taekwondo studio he brought two of his fellow Mayo Clinic medical school students with him. In his Minnesota basement, he'd trained them in Taekwondo: to offer them what it gave him.

"The nurture is what brought me to that state from being an overweight 10th grade dropout," he said. "But it's also the nurture that can bring them to the fullness of their human potential through teaching. That's what it means to be a master."

"That's what Taekwondo is for," he said. "That's what medicine is for, in my opinion."

At that point during our interview, you could hear a toddler babbling in the background. Adam Howard is also a dad now, with quite a story of perseverance to tell Adam Jr. when he grows up.

"And I realized in psychiatry that's the work we did in Taekwondo," he said. "That was helping people understand themselves and helping them understand how to be their best selves. It was what I was put on this world to do. It was what I was trained to do."

"Really it is a blessing. I could not have contrived a way to do this with my own cleverness," he said of all the help and support he's received on his journey. "This is a blessing."

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