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Amy Herman-Roloff ’01 Follows Her Calling as Director of CDC South Africa

Amy Herman-Roloff ’01 Follows Her Calling as Director of CDC South Africa

Amy Herman-Roloff ’01 visits a CDC-funded site focused on supporting vulnerable children and teaching sewing to women so they can earn a steady income.

These are my people,” Amy Herman-Roloff ’01 told her parents in an email during her first week of graduate school.

It took a while, but she had finally found the community and career path that would lead her to become Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Country Director and Global HIV and TB Program Director in Pretoria, South Africa. As such, she leads a team of nearly 100 people, and as part of a network of 12,000 CDC employees in 120 countries, heads up one of the largest global hubs for infectious disease prevention.

She had been a standout high school student in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and her family had deep ties to Bethel—making it a natural choice when she was looking at colleges. She describes her first year as a physics student as “intense on all fronts,” and says a vocational crisis and a whim led her to become a writer for The Clarion student newspaper her second year.

“Writing for The Clarion nurtured another part of me that I really enjoyed. While I liked science, math and solving problems, physics just didn’t quite feel like my home,” she explains. Herman-Roloff had trusted mentors in University Professor of Physics Emeritus Dick Peterson and Professor of Physics Tom Greenlee, who supported her non-traditional path and encouraged her to find projects that excited her. She declared a second major in English literature and writing and worked closely with Professors of English Thomas Becknell, Mary Ellen Ashcroft, and Daniel Ritchie. She added a minor in chemistry, and her community of inspiring mentors grew as she played French horn and handbells, acted in plays, and honed a variety of skills. “I was a pendulum who was seeking a variety of different experiences. While neither physics nor journalism felt like ‘home’ and ‘my people,’ together they shaped me and my path to where I am today,” she says.

Herman-Roloff admittedly has a rare mix of left-brain and right-brain aptitudes—and a tireless curiosity. While at Bethel, she studied abroad twice in Kenya, first at Daystar University with a scholarship arranged by now-President Jay Barnes himself. Wishing to expand her knowledge of Africa, she returned to Kenya with a National Security Education Program (NSEP) scholarship to study Kiswahili and hydrological engineering (engineering to get reliable water to rural areas). According to its website, the mission of NSEP is “to develop a pipeline of foreign language and culture expertise for the U.S. federal government workforce.” Herman-Roloff would eventually fulfill this mission, but it wasn’t until coming face-to-face with the HIV-AIDS epidemic and finding her way into public health. There she found a unique opportunity to blend the problem-solving and communication skills she had gained through her complementary Bethel majors.

Herman-Roloff earned a master’s in epidemiology from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in epidemiology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She met her husband, Kurt, with whom she now has three daughters.

After 16 years in 11 different African countries, her current role places her on the front lines of disease response in South Africa—fighting outbreaks of listeria, influenza, and malaria. South Africa also has the highest rate of HIV in the world, with nearly 20 percent of the population infected. There are many factors that drive the epidemic, Herman-Roloff explains. Gender-based violence affects nearly 30 percent of women in South Africa, and 2,200 young women are infected with HIV every week. Her position requires her to be savvy with statistics while also being able to talk honestly about risk factors for HIV, how to prevent infection, and if someone is infected, the importance of life-long, life-saving treatment.

“It has been my experience that there aren’t many Christians in public health; frequently, I’m one of the few at the table. But given my faith, personal experiences, and educational training, I feel uniquely prepared to engage with a variety of people about HIV,” Herman-Roloff says. “Africa has a predominantly Christian culture, and health and belief systems are very connected in most cultures. I feel comfortable having honest, course-changing talks with people because of who I am and who Bethel equipped me to be.”

While Herman-Roloff analyzes data to understand how a disease is spreading and the best way to stop it, it’s her soft skills and personal experiences—and even being a momthat make her highly effective in dealing with the sensitivities and demands of her job.

“This isn’t the world that God wants for us. Economic disparities, violence, racism, sin, greed—these are things that God doesn’t love and keep us from shalom,” she reflects. She says that her heart breaks when she hears about the stigma and judgement that people living with HIV experience—especially people who were infected at birth or as a result of sexual abuse or assault. “HIV infection isn’t fair, but thankfully, there are proven strategies to prevent HIV infection, and even if you are exposed, to live a full life. It’s a gift to share with people that a diagnosis isn’t a death sentence.”

Herman-Roloff is passionate about setting the record straight about the importance of sexual health and education, especially in African countries, which tend to be more culturally conservative. She’s quick to explain that talking with young people about sex is not about encouraging immorality but empowering kids to grow up, disease-free, to pursue their callings. When it comes to disease prevention and treatment, she says that understanding religious tradition and culture is just as important as understanding medical interventions. 

“What Bethel did for me was break the stereotype of the relationship between science and Christianity. It’s still a prevalent opinion that being Christian means being anti-science. I loved the way Doctors Peterson and Greenlee described science as unlocking the wonder of God’s creation. Bethel’s program prepared me to integrate science and faith throughout my life and career,” she adds.

Herman-Roloff’s mother, Rosanne Herman, is a spunky career-long educator who’s rarely without words. But even she has a tough time expressing her deep pride in how Amy serves in such difficult contexts with grace and wisdom. So she quotes a poem by John Wesley: 

“‘Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.’ This was the standard for life and work that surrounded Amy at Bethel, and the standard that guides her work in Africa,” Herman says. “Amy’s eclectic. She has skills across the board. She has intellect and a desire to serve, and at Bethel, she learned to meld those things. There aren’t many Christians running around in public health, but people truly benefit from the light that Christians bring. I don’t think you see that anywhere else quite as strongly as public health. As parents, we are indebted to Bethel; it played a huge part in who Amy is today.”