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With Abigail Geisinger Scholars program, John Coulter finds ‘everything lining up’

A biology class at Crestwood High School in Mountain Top, Pa., convinced John Coulter he wanted to be a doctor. But when he voiced that dream out loud, he was surprised by the negativity that greeted his aspirations. “I heard a lot of no,” he said. “The hours were too much. The paperwork was too great a burden. You had no control over your schedule. I was advised to go into physical therapy instead. So that’s what I did.”

When he graduated from Crestwood, Mr. Coulter enrolled at Slippery Rock University as an exercise science major. He was accepted to the “three plus three” program but discovered in his fourth year that PT wasn’t for him. “I was shadowing a DPT, and I felt it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to get more involved in prevention, rather than trying to fix problems after they occurred. I talked to an adviser and said I liked physiology, and I enjoyed interacting with people. He said, ‘It sounds like you want to be a doctor.’”

Mr. Coulter realized the adviser was correct and his initial high school dreams were valid after all. Unfortunately, his college years hadn’t prepared him for medical school. He sat down to take the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) and found he didn’t recognize any of the words. “I didn’t have biochemistry. I didn’t have organic chemistry. And yet I was trying to make it work — I was using context clues to try to help me figure things out,” he said.

The experience prompted Mr. Coulter to reach out to his friend Jakob Saidman, who was then a third-year medical student at Geisinger Commonwealth. “He told me about the MBS program and said it would prepare me for medical school,” Mr. Coulter said.

At the time, Mr. Coulter was driving an escort car for oversized trucks traveling to West Virginia and Ohio. During those long, maddeningly slow drives, he spent a lot of time talking to the Geisinger Commonwealth admissions team. “I realized that up until that point, I’d been hearing a lot of ‘No. No. No,’” he said. “Now, suddenly, everything was, ‘Yes. Yes. Go. Go.’” Mr. Coulter still felt hampered by the earlier negativity he experienced, so he told himself not to get too excited until he saw the grade on his first biochemistry exam. “I got a 100, and so I started to feel, ‘Yes, I can do this,’” he said. Empowered by that success, Mr. Coulter blossomed in other ways at the School of Medicine. He ran for and won a leadership post on Graduate Student Council. When he ran into problems with his genetics class, he approached his professor, Greg Shanower, PhD, and asked if they could meet every week to go over the material. Dr. Shanower agreed instantly and never missed a meeting. “The level of support I received, the resources that were available to me — it was unbelievable,” Mr. Coulter said. “Everyone was so caring. I took advantage of every opportunity Geisinger Commonwealth provided.”

During his gap year, Mr. Coulter worked as a teaching assistant. In late fall of that year, he was accepted as a medical student to the Geisinger Commonwealth Class of 2023, and in the spring, he learned he was also named an Abigail Geisinger Scholar, meaning his medical school tuition will be free, provided he agrees to become a Geisinger physician.

Mr. Coulter, who hopes to become a cardiologist, said with the Abigail Geisinger Scholars program, everything came full circle. “Back in high school, I wanted to be a doctor, and I always knew I wanted to stay in this area,” he said. “Being accepted to Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine and being a scholar tells me this is right. This is what I want to do. Everything is lined up right for me.”

John Coulter, MBS ’18, MD Class of 2023