Going For It: Scott Wilder’s Journey from Pre-Algebra to Pre-Med

Scott Wilder had done pretty well for himself. He was happily married, had a young son and even though he hadn’t gone to college, was enjoying a lucrative career in the mortgage industry. 

But in 2008, that all changed. 

That was the year his beloved wife was diagnosed with cancer. And it was the same year that the mortgage bubble exploded. IndyMac, where he worked, was the first of the big banks to fail.

What for many would have been an existential crisis, Wilder calls an “existential awakening.”

“I was comfortable. I had a good job and a good life,” says Wilder. “But there had always been this undertow, this feeling that I should be doing more, or that I wanted to do more. Working in mortgage, I started to realize the difference between a vocation and a career. I started feeling like I wanted to make a difference. My wife getting sick pulled this all into perspective.”

After a successful surgery to remove her thyroid (which eventually led to a full recovery), Wilder realized that if he was going to make a change, now was the time to do it. 

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” says Wilder. “But I was pretty sure that whatever it was, I was going to need a degree to do it.”

Wilder wasn’t sure if he could do it. Growing up in Meadowview, one of the rougher areas of Sacramento at the time, Wilder was the youngest of nine siblings and one of three who actually graduated high school. Neither of his parents had gone to college, and while he’d been part of the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program in elementary school, school had never been a priority. 

Despite these doubts, Wilder enrolled at Cosumnes River College, encouraged by his recovering wife. He took anthropology, pre-algebra, and continued taking classes and searching for his passion until he happened into a medical terminology class. 

“It was kind of an accident, really,” says Wilder. “I needed a couple extra units, so took the course and ended up meeting a Berkeley graduate who had been a design major but who now wanted to go into medicine. He was working at an ER and really loving it and suggested I apply. So I did.”

As an ER scribe at Sutter General Hospital in Sacramento, Wilder found his calling. Every day, he was assigned to a physician and tasked with documenting the medical histories of every patient the doctor talked to. Over time, he started to understand how doctors think and the logic behind their questions.

More importantly, the experience allowed him to rub elbows with health professionals of all types and showed him that doctors were people just like him. If they could do it, maybe he could, too. 

“From that time on, every clinical experience I had was judged against my time there,” says Wilder. “Did it make me feel as alive and as fulfilled as I did there? Nothing else did.”

Wilder loved the pace of emergency medicine. He loved the pressure. But most of all, he loved making a difference.

“I went into medicine because I wanted to make a difference in the world,” says Wilder. “To me, emergency medicine is the frontline of human experience, people come in and it doesn’t matter where they come from or who they are. What matters is that they’re scared and need your help.”

During this time, Wilder also met Mr. Michael Carney, director of the Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) program at Cosumnes, who would become an important mentor and friend. Carney saw in Wilder an eager young man who was willing to work hard, and made it a point to keep Wilder informed about various enrichment opportunities as they became available. 

“MESA helps people that come from backgrounds like mine that don’t have a lot of resources,” says Wilder. “That made the difference for me. It made a commuter college feel like a family, it gave me somewhere to go when I was on-campus, somewhere I could talk to people on the same or similar path as mine.”

MESA also provided a point of contact that would become critical to Wilder’s future. Every Friday, a counselor from UC Davis would hold information sessions. These sessions provided the curricular guidance Wilder needed to eventually transfer to UC Davis, where he would receive the university’s most prestigious award for transfer students — the Regents Scholarship. 

Despite what amounted to a $4,500 quarterly scholarship at the time, moving his family to Davis proved too expensive. Instead, he used the money to offset the cost of the hour-long commute he took every day to school. 

Wilder, who would eventually graduate with honors and a bachelor’s degree in neurobiology, physiology and behavior, treated school like a full-time job. He would arrive at 7 a.m., no matter when his classes started, and leave at 5 p.m., no matter when his classes ended.

“My motivations were very different as an adult learner than they would have been if I was younger,” says Wilder. “As an adult, I knew my purpose, there was an end goal in mind… It required me to be an adult, to have some life experience to know that I could do this.

“I knew I had to go all in. My family was counting on me.”

His family, which in the meantime had grown by one baby daughter, also believed in him. 

“We kind of had this running joke,” laughs Wilder. “When things were tough, I would ask ‘Are you still good with this?’ And she always was. So, it got to the point that even when things were good, I’d ask it too and we’d laugh. She didn’t want me to be a 45-year-old man regretting never trying. She’s been an amazing support throughout.”

Today, Wilder is preparing to graduate as part of the inaugural class of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine at Auburn University. From there, he will move with his family to New Jersey, where he will start a three-year residency at the prestigious St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, the third busiest emergency room in the country. St. Joseph’s is also home to Dr. Anand Swaminathan, known as “Swami” in the emergency medical community and considered one of the top academic emergency medical practitioners in the country.

Eventually, Wilder hopes to either join or form a humanitarian organization like Doctors Without Borders, with the goal of delivering medical care to underserved populations in the United States and abroad.

“All I have to say to people like me is, it’s doable, it’s possible,” says Wilder. “I didn’t go straight into college because my mindset wasn’t there, but you’ll never know what you’re capable of unless you try. 

“The moment you start believing it’s possible, it is. All you have to do then, is go for it.”