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CU Pharmacy Provided 2007 Alumnus the Space to Be His “Authentic Self”

It took one phone call to transform Dr. Robert Willis’s Pharmacy career

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Written by Jaron Bryant on June 1, 2023

The journey from small-town roots provided 2007 alumnus Robert Willis an opportunity that not only directed and shaped his career as a pharmacist but also provided him the road map to self-discovery, making him the person he is today. In celebration of Pride Month this June, Dr. Willis reflects on his college experience that launched his Pharmacy career and brought him to the realization of his identity as a gay man.

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What are you currently doing as a pharmacy professional and how did you progress to where you are today?

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 Robert Willis, PharmD '07

Currently, I hold the position of Corporate Pharmacy Trainer and Residency Program Director (RPD) at Albertsons Companies/Safeway. My role as a Corporate Trainer combines my interests in Academia with my passion for community-based residency programs. The journey that led me to where I am today can be traced back to one telephone call. At the time, I was working as a pharmacy manager and wanted to contribute more. I reached out to our Patient Care Services Manager, Christy Harmon, offering to pilot new programs at my location and assist her in any way possible.  She said that she would love my help, because we were going to be expanding services in Colorado. Through this opportunity, I had the privilege of contributing to the expansion of patient care services in the Denver Division. That single phone call transformed the course of my career.

Additionally, I have dedicated over six years of my time serving on the Colorado Pharmacists Society (CPS) Board, recently completing my term as the immediate past president. My involvement with CPS has afforded me the opportunity to participate in various initiatives that have positively influenced the pharmacy landscape in Colorado. CPS has made significant contributions to the pharmacy profession, and I strongly encourage all pharmacists, technicians, and students to join and actively engage with the society.

What is different about the person you are today compared to the person you were while in school?

In 2003, I moved from a small town in Texas to Denver, where I pursued my pharmacy education at CU. This marked the first time I ventured away from my family, allowing me the freedom to truly embrace my authentic self, and eventually came out of the closet. Pharmacy school served as my "college experience," so I must admit that I could have dedicated more time to studying. Nevertheless, I managed to navigate this journey of self-discovery and successfully graduate. Presently, I am a proud gay man who possesses a deep passion for community-based pharmacy—a passion that my younger self would find surprising.

What has been a defining moment for you as a seasoned professional?

A pivotal moment in my journey was when I was honored with the APhA Community Pharmacy Excellence in Precepting Award in 2020. This award acknowledges the exceptional abilities of a community pharmacy Residency Program Director (RPD) or preceptor in the areas of precepting, mentoring, leadership, and residency administration. Given my deep passion for community-based residency programs, receiving this recognition was truly gratifying. It validated the dedication and hard work I had invested in our program.

What inspired you to attend the CU Pharmacy program and what was your experience while in the program?

Growing up in a small town in Texas, I always knew there was a bigger world out there and I wanted to explore it.  For me, attending pharmacy school out of state was a way for me to leave that small town and be true to myself. I applied to several pharmacy schools outside of Texas and ultimately decided to attend CU. During pharmacy school, I was able to make connection with classmates and several faculty members.  For me pharmacy school was a great experience because I was able to be myself for the first time and was able to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a pharmacist.

What is your proudest moment and your favorite thing about working in the pharmacy profession, and how have you made a difference in your career?

I don’t think I have just one proud moment.  What really makes me the most proud are my residents and what they accomplish during and after residency.  I truly feel honored to be a small part of each resident’s development and I am always so proud as each resident pursues their dreams and make a name for themselves in the world of pharmacy.  My residents are my proudest moments!

My favorite thing about working in pharmacy is being able to help advance the pharmacists role in Colorado.  When I started in community pharmacy immunizations were the only patient care service offered.  Now our pharmacists can prescribe numerous medications.  I love how the role of a community-based pharmacists has changed and I really think we have a great opportunity to provide advanced services and prove the value of our community pharmacists.

I try to make an impact by advocating for community pharmacy and staying involved with CPS. CPS has been a great way to enhance the pharmacy profession in Colorado.

What sage advice would you pass on to current and future students that was helpful for you in preparing for the job market?

My biggest advice would be to network and ask for opportunities.  Even as a student, network with classmates and faculty.  Relationships that I built during school, both with classmates and faculty, continue to be utilized in my role today.  Also, if I would have not reached out and asked for additional opportunities, I would not be where I am at today. So, don’t be shy ask for what you want.  No amount of training replaces a strong work ethic.


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