'At $6.50 an hour, you have to really decide what's important. Working that job was a big part of my life.'

John Robinson picked up a job at Taco Bell as a teenager with a singular goal in mind: to save enough money to attend a pre-medical school summer camp between high school and his freshman year of college.

He raised the $400 he needed, but he kept the job at Taco Bell afterward – for eight years. Some coworkers laughed when, year after year, he talked about becoming a doctor but still folded burritos in the kitchen with the rest of them.

He started at a Taco Bell near his home in Simpsonville in high school. After leaving for college at the University of South Carolina, he still worked at his home restaurant while on breaks from class. When he graduated with a psychology degree, he stayed on at the Tex-Mex fast food restaurant to save up for the Medical College Admissions Test.

John "Taco" Robinson with Dr. Paul McDermott, associate dean of faculty affairs, at commencement in May. Photo provided. 

“At the time it wasn't a job I really wanted to keep -- I started at $6.50 an hour – but looking back on it, it was a good experience,” Robinson said. His psychology degree left him overqualified for some positions, he said, and tough to market in general, especially since he finished college in the midst of the economic recession.

“I learned a lot of lessons: customer service, the value of hard work and financial management,” Robinson said. “At $6.50 an hour, you have to really decide what's important. Working that job was a big part of my life.” 

John “Taco” Robinson graduated from the MUSC College of Medicine in May. He earned his nickname during a diversity forum, when Dr. Paul McDermott, associate dean of faculty affairs, listened to the incoming students introduce themselves and describe their summers before arriving at MUSC. 

“Everyone was talking about trips they took,” Robinson said. “So I told everybody I was a taco and burrito artist at Taco Bell. I thought it would be a funny and memorable anecdote to lighten the mood when meeting my future classmates.”

Dr. McDermott liked the story and asked if he could call Robinson “Taco.” He said Robinson seemed to connect with each of his classmates.

“He was just everybody’s friend, easy to talk to,” Dr. McDermott said. “He’s just that kind of guy.”

And Taco joked back with him. As Dr. McDermott used his laser pointer during a lecture one morning, he spotted a green dot on screen -- and saw Taco in the back, smiling. 

In addition to the cash he saved folding quesadillas, Robinson also earned the Jean P. Wilson Scholarship, an award for students who demonstrate outstanding empathy for patients, during his first two years at MUSC and the $10,000 College of Medicine Dean’s Scholarship, one of the college’s largest awards, for his two final years.

Robinson attributes his commitment to education to his mother, a teacher and one of nine children, who stressed the value of education. After reading a book about a man who paid for college on scholarships alone, Robinson started working in his high school guidance counselor’s office after school so he could get first peek at the scholarship postings.

“As soon as I got the list, I went home and wrote an essay,” he said. He sent out 30 essays and earned seven scholarships that helped to offset the cost of his undergraduate education.  

His scholarships at MUSC not only assisted with tuition and rent but also flights and hotels while interviewing for residencies. Robinson landed at the University of Florida Health Science Center-Jacksonville in neurology.

He plans to pay his debt off as soon as he can and then focus on helping other students in need of support. 

“Coming here was a dream, and I had my dream made possible from someone else's contribution,” he said. “Once I'm a physician, I want to be a philanthropist and establish a scholarship.”

And in case you’re wondering, “Taco” Robinson still eats at Taco Bell -- he likes the grilled stuffed burrito with steak -- but you can call him Dr. Taco these days.