U.S. Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson ’81 had planned to be an English teacher. Instead, the year after graduating, she decided to join UNH’s ROTC program and “do the Air Force” for a few years while she figured things out.
Fast-forward to April 28, 2016: After being nominated by President Barack Obama, the U.S. Senate confirmed Robinson as the first female commander of the U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). Charged with preventing attacks against the U.S, the command was established in 2002 in response to 9/11.
Robinson will also command the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the unit responsible for aerospace warning and control and maritime warning for the U.S. and Canada. She will assume command at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Friday, May 13. The event can be viewed at the U.S. Department of Defense site at 10 a.m.
Robinson has been serving as commander of the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) in Hawaii since 2014, a role that before then also had been held only by men. One of nine major commands, PACAF consists of 45,000 personnel. Its area of responsibility stretches more than 100 million miles, from the east coast of Asia to the Arctic to the Antarctic. Robinson also is the air component commander for U.S. Pacific Command and executive director of Pacific air combat operations staff at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
“I am conscious of being a role model as the first woman to hold some of these positions. I like to think I’ve gotten the jobs because people felt I was the most competent person for the job and I just happen to be a woman,” said Robinson, one of the Air Force’s only two active female four-star general.
In high school, when she was first thinking about her future and where she might go to college, her sights were set on the University of Texas. Her father, George Howard, a retired Air Force colonel who lives in Jackson, New Hampshire, suggested UNH.
“He first asked if I wanted to go to the Air Force Academy and I said ‘Are you out of your mind? I’ve been doing the Air Force for 18 years. I want something else,’” Robinson said. “Thirty-two years later, here I am.”
“I really like going to work every day. I like being part of something that is bigger.”
She credits UNH for setting her on an “amazing course” that helped lead to her successful career.
“I really like going to work every day. I like being part of something that is bigger,” Robinson says. “There was a time when I didn’t really understand what it meant to be part of something bigger than one’s self. Now I see how it can make a difference. It can really become your passion.”
Her father helped shape that passion, encouraging her to be the very best at whatever job she was asked to do. Her mother, she said, taught her to be positive. Both parents instilled a strong work ethic, values and a positive outlook.
“That has helped me each and every day,” Robinson said. “It’s been a privilege to have the career I’ve had and work with leaders who have taught me so much. I am so thankful that this is how it all turned out.”
Col. Colleen Ryan ’82, retired, who will receive an honorary degree at this year’s commencement, also held a “first female” position when she took command of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in 2006. A master navigator with more than 3,400 hours, she was part of the advance teams for Air Force One during the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Ryan entered the Air Force in 1982 after receiving her commission through UNH’s ROTC program.