By Lana Shovlin
Dr. Wesley Robinson-McNeese has been a soldier and a student, a pastor and a physician. He grew up in East St. Louis and tried college after graduating high school, but ultimately joined the military and was sent to Vietnam. At the age of 30, he returned to college and then graduated from SIU School of Medicine. After working at Chicago-area hospitals, he returned to Springfield in 2001 and has been balancing dual roles of working with his alma mater and serving as a spiritual and community leader ever since.
How did you first develop an interest in medicine?
When I was 18, I attended college at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, but I wasn’t very focused and didn’t do very well. When the spring semester rolled around, rather than return to college, I joined the U.S. Air Force and started my military career as a radio operator. After a while, I got tired of that job and decided to cross-train as a medic. It was then that I discovered I had a facility for patient care and medicine. Later, I parlayed that skill set into becoming a physician. However, one of the main reasons I wanted to be a physician was because I was an African American male and I noticed that oftentimes in medical situations, even in the emergency room, people are not treated the same for a variety of reasons. I wanted to be a physician who treated everybody equally.
In a previous interview, you mentioned that MEDPREP was a godsend to you. Can you tell us more about that?
MEDPREP provides assistance to educationally and/or economically disadvantaged students. Before entering the program, my college background was all arts. I loved writing, speaking and literature, but I hated the sciences. If you’re going to be a physician, though, you have to be knowledgeable in that area. MEDPREP helped me with that. They taught me what the MCAT was and how I should approach studying for it. They introduced me to the admissions process of medical school, polished me up and especially taught me a lot about professionalism. I credit MEDPREP with getting me into the field of medicine.
As someone who preferred the arts, how did you navigate through the science requirements of medical school?
With great difficulty. I didn’t like the sciences then, and I don’t like the sciences now, but I was made to understand that if I wanted to be a physician, these were the classes I had to master. Luckily, as a practicing physician, most of your day is spent in patient care and patients just want to know that you care about them, not whether you made an A in biochemistry.
What brought you to Springfield?
Most people think that the SIU School of Medicine brought me here, but that’s not the case. In 1998, I was working in Kankakee, Illinois, as an emergency room physician when a church in Springfield that needed a pastor offered me a job. Very quickly, after accepting the position, the church realized that they couldn’t afford me, and I realized that I needed to get a side job. About the same time, the dean of the medical school approached me and asked if I would be interested in helping start an office of diversity. My answer was yes, yes, yes!
What was your job at SIU School of Medicine?
I served as the associate dean for diversity and inclusion and retired from that position. While there, I had some interactions with individuals at a higher level within SIU, and even though I was close to retiring, they offered me a position as the executive director for diversity initiatives for the SIU system. Our goal is to develop a plan that allows for our three campuses to take the diversity champions from each campus, decide what diversity should look like for our system and make that happen. I have the honor of being coordinator for that effort.
What are you most curious about in life?
I’m most curious about the past. There is so much we don’t know about our ancestry, so I’m trying to become our family’s genealogist. Sometimes I go to the den, get on ancestry.com, and I’m there for hours. My wife has to come and retrieve me.
What have been the greatest challenges of your two careers?
As a pastor, my greatest challenge was learning that just because a person is faithful, that doesn’t make them perfect. As a physician, I struggled when I had to take care of a child in crisis. It affects me more than it probably should, and I have to summon something special in order to be my best while attending children.
What is your life motto?
“Be not wise in thine own eyes.” I tend to have some thoughts and opinions about many things, but that doesn’t mean I think I’m necessarily the wisest person in the room. I recognize that other people’s ideas may be just as sound and just as good.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I was raised in a household that had a lot of religious rules, and I bought into them. I was very intense, and I didn’t enjoy a young person’s life as much as I should have. I would tell myself to lighten up.
Do you have plans for when you decide to retire again?
There is so much that I want to do with my life. I love to write short stories and poetry. I’m always writing down thoughts that come to me that I want to remember and explore. It just never stops, but that’s okay; I prefer it that way.