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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Her Mother's Inspiration Drove Graduate to Succeed, Give Back

When Katie Robinson receives her degree from Old Dominion University on May 9, her cap will be stylish and chic, as you would expect from a Dean's List student graduating in occupational and technical studies, more commonly known as fashion merchandising.

However, Robinson is most concerned about the person watching from above having the best view.

The cap will be decorated with a glittery cancer ribbon, and be emblazoned with the words "Carol's Crew." Robinson, 23, said of her mother, Carol: "I want her to look down, see the cap, and smile."

In August 2013, Bill and Carol Robinson and their children Katie, Caroline and Michael were at a family reunion in Roanoke, when Carol had a serious seizure. "I actually had to make the 911 call," Katie said.

The diagnosis was the worst possible news for the family - Stage 4 glioblastoma, or brain cancer. Carol was given 14 months to live. "She ended up dying on St. Patrick's Day last year, nine months after the initial seizure," Katie said.

As a junior at Old Dominion, the 2013-14 school year was a blur for Robinson. She transferred to Old Dominion, her parents' alma mater, after attending Roanoke College on a tennis scholarship her freshman year.

"It just felt like the perfect decision," she said. "Our whole family is connected with Old Dominion. My grandfather (Pete Robinson) started the wrestling program here, my mother was a member of the same sorority (Delta Zeta). When I found out I got accepted into my program, my mom and I went for lunch and we were both so happy."

After the seizure, and her mother's aggressive cancer treatment, Katie knew she needed to do what she could to support her family. She was incredibly gratified to find out her instructors were so supportive. "Sharon Davis, who was my adviser, was so phenomenal and amazing. She went out of her way to help me balance school work and life at home," Robinson said.

Then after her mother died, it was Davis who helped convince Robinson to make the fashion show she was planning into a university-wide event and cancer fund-raiser.

"I did this purely for myself, to cope and move on. The way the ODU community reacted was just incredible. I still get chills thinking about it," Robinson said.

The event, #Cancerstrong, held last October in Webb University Center as a benefit for the American Society, became a cause on campus.

"I had a girl message me on Facebook because she wanted to model in the show. She said her mother had the same form of cancer. She came out, took part in the event, and I haven't even talked to her since. It's really amazing that things like this keep happening," Robinson said.

Donations are still coming in from the event, including a $1,000 donation from her father's employer presented during the Relay for Life last month at Old Dominion.

"With tragedies like this, it's easy to feel like you are alone. I never felt that way here," Robinson said.

Davis is a senior lecturer of STEM education and professional studies. She said it was inspiring to watch Katie Robinson be a rock for her family while her mother was ill, and then throw her passion into the cancer fund-raiser in hopes of making a difference.

"Her strength was massive as she navigated her way through the next eight months. She became the grounding force for her father, sister and 10 year old brother. During this time, Kathryn worked hard to maintain a "normal world" for everyone. After her mother's passing Kathryn organized a fundraiser to honor her mother and her courageous battle," Davis said.

More than a year after her mother's death, Katie Robinson said there are still difficult times every day. But she also finds her mother Carol still teaching her.

"She taught me simply to be kind to people. You might not like the cards you've been dealt. But the way she treated everyone from her doctors to the people cleaning her room was such a lesson for all of us," she said.

Robinson said her mother's terminal illness also convinced her not to be silent; to give cancer a face and talk about it.

"My mom fought the best she could, until her last breath," she said.

Through her blog Grey is the New Pink Katie Robinson remembers her mother, and reminds herself what a gift life is.

In her most recent entry, on the anniversary of her mother's death, Robinson writes to her mother, sharing excitement about her graduation day, and the job she'll soon start in Dollar Tree's CORE Merchandising program.

"You were so many wonderful things to so many different people but all of those things worked to change and enhance their lives in positive ways," Robinson wrote. "You never took a day for granted and embraced everyone and everything with open arms. Every day I learn more about the amazing legacy you left behind for me to follow and I learn more about the legacy I'm establishing for myself."