Shifting Gears

A recession-era career switch takes a Portlander from showroom to emergency room.

By Chris Lydgate July 14, 2014 Published in the Health Annual: Summer 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

In November 2008, Nicholas Robbins was laid off from his job as a financial manager at a Mazda/GMC dealership on SE McLoughlin Boulevard. At first, he didn’t sweat it. A longtime car guy, he’d worked the floor at half a dozen different dealerships. 

“I figured I wouldn’t be out of work long,” he says. “I knew people, people knew me.” He polished up his résumé but kept hearing the same thing: “We’re not hiring right now. Wait till the first of the year.” As weeks stretched into months, Robbins began to realize that no one in the car business was hiring—every lot in the country was jammed with unsold cars and trucks. Desperate for a job, Robbins tried to get on as a salesman at Best Buy, or work at a grocery store—anything. No dice. 

So Robbins went back to school. He’d graduated from Wilson High School in 1994 but never went to college. Inspired by his wife, a technician at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Robbins borrowed some math books from the Multnomah County Library and started taking classes at Mt Hood Community College. After a year, he enrolled at Portland State University, thanks to a scholarship from the Ford Family Foundation, majoring in molecular and microbiology. 

Then he won a full scholarship to Oregon Health & Science University, where, at the age of 37, he’s now a first-year med student. “I didn’t just want to help someone make a profit,” he says. “I wanted to do something I was passionate about.” Robbins gets up every weekday at 6 am and rides his bike from his home in South Tabor to Marquam Hill for classes on physiology, epidemiology, and anatomy—which includes dissecting a cadaver. (“A humbling experience,” he says, adding that he means that with the utmost respect.) 

Has his time on the showroom floor been helpful in medical school? “Absolutely,” he replies. “The car business is about asking the right questions. You have to gain rapport with people. And to be honest, as an older student I’m more practical.” Robbins isn’t sure which specialty he’ll pursue, but whatever it is, it’s likely to involve more cell counts than lease rates.

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