By Sharon Goldman
When Derrick Wilder heard that he had been accepted to Columbia and to PALS, nearly 20 years after he graduated from high school, he was “blown away.” After all, he had only applied because of the encouragement of his best friend, another GS student. “I called her crazy,” he says. “I got a call from Scott Halvorson who offered me the scholarship. I just started crying.”
Being accepted and arriving at Columbia didn’t soothe all of his anxieties, however. “It actually amplified my fears,” he says. “I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’ Prior to the scholarship, all of my fears could be focused on the financial burden, and when that was removed, I had to get over my angst about deserving an Ivy League education.”
Wilder was already a success without a college degree, pursuing a career in dance after graduating from high school in his hometown of Atlanta. He moved to New York City and studied at the Dance Theater of Harlem and the School of American Ballet, eventually ran his own company in Omaha, Nebraska and directed the junior company of the Dayton Ballet. But the question of education kept returning, he says. “I would always say that I had always planned on going to college, but it hit me like a ton of bricks that— if I was going to do this, I’d have to do it now.”
Once he had the opportunity to be part of PALS, Wilder says he couldn’t stop thinking about giving back to the community. He took the lead in developing the No Limits program, which grew out of conversations he had with other PALS students who all shared a common path, “We all dealt with overcoming hardships and the stigma that we did not belong at an Ivy League school.” The result is the annual No Limits conference, which teaches young people with backgrounds similar to the GS students’ to feel empowered that they too can pursue an Ivy League education.
Today, Wilder is the director of dance at one of the nation’s oldest private schools, the Lawrenceville School in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and he cherishes his PALS experience: “It was amazing, wonderful, and true to my heart.”