Robert Robinson, DDS’18, knows about challenges.
The May graduate suffered severe burns to his face and neck as a child, had his family home destroyed by Hurricane Katrina as a teenager, and in his 20s nearly gave up on his dream of becoming a dentist.
Robinson also knows about perseverance, hard work and the importance of mentors as a source of advice, support and encouragement.
Now he’s looking to give back. His ultimate goal is to return home to St. Bernard Parish, a county in Louisiana, to inspire the next generation – particularly young African-Americans.
“I believe I’m the first African-American male dentist from St. Bernard Parish,” says Robinson, who is currently working at a private practice in Savannah, Georgia. “It means a lot. This is something I hold as my pride and joy. A lot of family and friends are so proud of me.
“One of my goals is to be able to give back. I want to help and coach others to make the next person successful.”
Robinson was born and raised in tiny Violet, Louisiana, in St. Bernard Parish, where his father is owner/operator of a trucking company and his mother is a nurse.
He remembers, as a child, visiting the hospital where his mother worked and being awestruck by “the women and men in white coats” – kindling an early interest in the health sciences.
When he was 6 years old, Robinson was severely burned. A teenage neighbor had poured gasoline into a mailbox infested with red ants, thrown in a lit match and closed the door. Robinson, curious, opened the mailbox, and was hit by a burst of flames.
During his recovery process, he met with an oral surgeon, who checked for damage inside is mouth. Robinson’s burns eventually healed, and his visits with the oral surgeon got him thinking about a career in dentistry.
In high school, Robinson and his family faced another major challenge. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina barreled along Gulf Coast, causing catastrophic damage. St. Bernard Parish, located four miles downriver from the French Quarter, lay in ruins. Nearly all of St. Bernard Parish’s 68,000 residents were left homeless – including the Robinson family.
They relocated to Houston for Robert’s sophomore year of high school. His dad assisted with the rebuilding effort in and around New Orleans. Sometimes, Robert and a cousin would travel back home on the weekends to assist family and friends – gutting water-damaged homes and cleaning up.
By his junior year, Robert’s family had returned to a newly built home in St. Bernard Parish. Robert resumed school, attending St. Augustine High School. He played defensive back on the football team, and considered pursuing collegiate athletics. But he ultimately decided to follow his passion for health care.
He enrolled at Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry. Upon graduation, he applied to several dental schools, but didn’t have the requisite test scores. Not deterred, he applied and was accepted to Creighton’s pre-dental post-baccalaureate certificate program – a four-semester program that helps students strengthen their credentials and skills for entrance into dental school.
Robinson loved the program, including the support he received from Sade Kosoko-Lasaki, MD, a professor in the School of Medicine and associate vice provost of health sciences, and her staff in Creighton’s Office of Health Sciences Multicultural and Community Affairs, which oversees post-baccalaureate programs in dentistry and medicine. But moving to Omaha was a major culture shock. “I had never seen snow before,” he says, with a laugh.
After completing the program, he retook the Dental Admission Test. He remembers anxiously hitting the submit button after finishing the online test. “Your score pops up immediately,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I was so happy.”
He was accepted into Creighton’s dental school and enrolled in the fall of 2013. The first year was a struggle.
“It was one of the toughest years of my life,” he says.
The academic course load and study requirements were “exhausting,” and he missed his family back home. At a low point, he considered dropping out. He leaned on his Baptist faith – praying for strength and guidance. He also received support and encouragement from several faculty members – particularly Terry Lanphier, BS’78, DDS’82, MBA’10, associate professor of oral and maxillofacial surgery.
“Dr. Lanphier is a great person. He is awesome,” Robinson says. “He will be a mentor for the rest of my life. There are so many things, beside dental school. I could go on and on about him – as well as Dr. [Gregory] Davis and Dr. [Neil] Norton.”
Lanphier saw tremendous potential in Robinson, even though he was struggling academically.
“No. 1, he has passion – a passion for dentistry and a passion for success,” Lanphier says. “And he didn’t blame anybody. He said, ‘I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve learned from them. I know I can do this. I want to do it, and I need to do it.’”
“I had to learn to be more disciplined,” Robinson says. He listened to advice from Lanphier and others – and took on the challenge. He repeated his first year, graduating this past May with his confidant, supporter and now fiancé, Bre’on Anderson, DDS’18.
Lanphier placed the doctoral hood upon Robinson in May, signifying his successful completion of dental school. They shared a few words.
“It was a very special moment,” Robinson says. “It meant a lot. He was very proud of me.”
Now he’s ready to face any challenge.
“Creighton is awesome,” Robinson says. “There’s no cutting of corners – no shortcuts. There were times when I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ I would be lying if I told you differently. As time went on, though, and being mentored and coached, I got to point where I said, ‘I got it now.’
“Now, I’m very confident in what I can do. By going to Creighton dental school, I feel very confident about treating patients out in the real world. Very confident.”