With West Philly roots, Kornberg alumnus keeps ‘loyalty’ to Temple

Alumnus Robert Bagramian donated $700,000 to the Kornberg School of Dentistry for scholarships.

Every day after he finished his classes in the 1950s, Robert Bagramian commuted home from the Health Sciences Campus to work in his father’s shoe repair shop in Overbrook, a working-class West Philadelphia neighborhood.

In that community, very few people had gone to college, Bagramian said, and he didn’t originally expect to either.

“If my parents did not sort of insist that I follow a certain path, I would probably have either quit high school, or graduated from high school and would have started working someplace,” Bagramian said. “But they insisted that I go to college.”

Bagramian, a 1960 dentistry alumnus, recently donated $700,000 to the Kornberg School of Dentistry through his Armen and Isabelle Bagramian Scholarship Fund, named in honor of his parents. He previously donated several thousand dollars to the fund, which awards scholarships to a handful of students each year.

For Bagramian’s parents, both Armenian immigrants, education was the most important thing they could offer him.

“In a sense, they were somewhat typical immigrants in that they recognized that they had to work hard and maybe suffer,” Bagramian said. “The important thing for their children to really make it in the world [was] they needed a good education.”

Bagramian decided to attend Temple for its affordability and proximity to his home. Once at school, he discovered his interest in dentistry.

Because of Bagramian’s years of work in his father’s store, he knew he liked to work with his hands. He saw practicing dentistry as a way to do that.

“I worked with my hands [when] I worked with my father fixing shoes,” Bagramian said. “[So] I liked all the intricate stuff that you do as a dentist.”

Bagramian lived at home during his years as an undergraduate and in dental school, continuing to work with his father after classes ended for the day.

“Dental school was very difficult,” Bagramian said. “It was a lot of pressure, but I really enjoyed the experience of treating patients and learning how to do dentistry.”

After graduating from Kornberg, Bagramian has spent much of his career traveling around the world, providing dental consulting and education. He has primarily worked in dental public health, focusing on disease prevention.

He first worked as a dentist in the United States Army Dental Corps for two years and in South Carolina for a year before traveling to Taiwan for a three-year stint at a hospital.

Bagramian said his experience volunteering at the hospital guided him into teaching.

“Their training at that point in time was not very good, so they asked me to share what I knew from the United States to the students there,” Bagramian said. “It was really a rewarding experience.”

Bagramian later spent time teaching in his parents’ home country, Armenia. For the last eight years, he has traveled to the country a couple times per year to work with the American University of Armenia.   

Because of his post-dental school experiences, Bagramian became interested in public health, and his career expanded. He then earned a master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1967 and a Ph.D. in public health in 1969 from the University of Michigan, where he works as a professor today.

“I’ve been a professor for over 40 years at the University of Michigan,” Bagramian said. “But my first loyalty is to Temple, because that’s where I got started and that’s where the opportunity was given to me.”

Most of Bagramian’s research examines topics related to public health, like how to improve accessibility to dental care.

“In your life, you always come to a crossroads, and you always have to make a decision,” Bagramian said. “And I’ve had lots of those decisions. I’ve been fortunate in that every time I made one of those decisions, it took me on the path I wanted.”

Adrian Gonzalez, a first-year student at Kornberg, learned about a month ago that he had received a one-time scholarship for $2,500 from the Armen and Isabelle Bagramian Scholarship Fund.

“Graduate school is expensive for any career you want to go into, whether it’s medical or a Ph.D. program,” Gonzalez said. “It’s very expensive, so anything from any source is very much appreciated.”

When Bagramian attended Temple in the 1950s, he recalls how inexpensive tuition was compared to today. With his donation to Kornberg, Bagramian said he wants to alleviate some of that burden.

“I want to make a little bit of a difference,” Bagramian added. “I want to show my thanks to an institution that made it possible for me to be where I am today.”

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