Earlier this month, dozens of wealthy parents were charged in a college-admissions scheme that involved bribes, lies and test fraud to try to get their progeny into some of the nation’s top colleges. 

The parents who allegedly pulled those strings seemed to believe that if their children didn’t go to the “right” school, they’d miss out on life’s opportunities.

But here’s the thing: Life’s opportunities can also be earned by going to a community college. Just ask Timothy Woodiwiss.

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Woodiwiss, who grew up in an Eastern Washington town, dropped out of high school at 16 to work at McDonald’s in Ritzville, Adams County, where he hoped to one day become the manager. A few years later, he returned to a community college to earn an associate degree. Over the next dozen years, he joined the Washington Army National Guard and was deployed in New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina) and Iraq, then earned his bachelor’s at Washington State University. Against all odds, he was accepted to medical school at the University of Washington. He graduates May 24.

Two weeks ago, as the college scandal crawled across chyrons on cable news, Woodiwiss, 32, learned that he’d been accepted to a medical residency in neurosurgery at the University of Iowa. He starts June 24.

What was his secret? It certainly wasn’t multimillion-dollar donations to a prestigious school or faking his SAT scores — Woodiwiss never took the SAT, and neither of his parents went to college. He was the 6th child in a family of 12, and money was tight. He launched his academic career at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake.


“I absolutely wouldn’t be here without Big Bend,” said Woodiwiss, who won an award as one of the most inspiring community college students from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in 2016.

In between evening shifts at UW Medical Center last week, Woodiwiss took time out to think about some of the elements of his success, and offer these tips to other students:

Develop mentorships and relationships. Because he never knew who might be helpful to his career, Woodiwiss took care to build relationships with many of his teachers — stopping by a faculty member’s desk during office hours, or going up to a professor at the end of class to tell him or her what he liked about the lecture. Those mentors, in turn, gave him good advice. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am without mentors,” he said, “and I couldn’t be more grateful to them.”

Be open to experiences. In addition to flipping burgers at a fast-food restaurant and driving supply trucks for the National Guard in Iraq, Woodiwiss has also sheared sheep, volunteered as a firefighter, worked as a janitor and general laborer, and drove for Uber and Lyft in medical school. “If you don’t know where you’re going in life, be open to lots of different experiences and try different things,” Woodiwiss said.

Don’t assume you know your own talents. All those different jobs allowed him to learn what he was good at — and to develop new skills along the way. For example, Woodiwiss always thought his hand-eye coordination was poor. But while working in a biology lab at WSU, he had a chance to practice his fine-motor skills while prepping tissue for viewing under a microscope. It turns out that fine-motor skills can be learned and perfected, and with practice, Woodiwiss learned how to be better at something he’ll need to do well for neurosurgery. “Lots of people make assumptions about what their talents are, and what they’re good at, and they can be wrong,” he said.

Find new ways to study: Doctors-in-training need to memorize a tremendous amount of material in medical school. Woodiwiss says there’s a cottage industry built around apps to help students memorize that information. His favorite is SketchyMedical, which uses eye-catching visuals, built layer by layer, to aid memory and recall. (It’s based on the concept of a memory palace, in which the participant builds a series of vivid mental images combined with spatial memory to recall information.) Woodiwiss also employs a low-tech aid, a small whiteboard, that he uses to reorganize material from a lecture. He writes information down on the whiteboard, using bullet points, outlines and different colors to reinforce connections. He erases it, and then rewrites it again from memory. Reorganizing, writing, erasing and rewriting all help Woodiwiss create his own memory palace.


Don’t study at home: Woodiwiss said he battled with procrastination in his early years as a student, until he discovered that one of the best ways to fight a tendency to dither is to change up his study environment — by going to a library, coffee shop or college common area, where he could remove himself from life’s distractions. As he learned how to study more effectively, his standardized tests scores rose, too. He didn’t fix his procrastination problem overnight: “Week by week, month by month, I got better at it.”

Read. What more is there to say? “Books were a huge source of inspiration to me.”

“Embrace the suck.” As a sergeant in the Army National Guard, Woodiwiss absorbed this catch phrase from military life, which means to accept or appreciate something that is extremely unpleasant, but also unavoidable. In those moments when Woodiwiss felt worn down by the grind of medical school, he’d focus on changing his attitude by telling himself: This is transforming me, and it’s painful, but I’m going to own what’s happening, and use it for good, for my development.

No regrets: Woodiwiss says that early in his life, he came to the decision that he’d rather try something and fail at it than look back and regret that he’d never tried in the first place. “I’d rather live with knowing I failed than knowing I never tried,” he said.