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Public health graduate aims to address health disparities

By Kelly Jordan | Emory Report | May 6, 2019

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The daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, Rosa Abraha plans to use her MPH to advocate for health equity for vulnerable populations. Past president of the Rollins SGA, she is Emory’s Graduate Student Leader of the Year.

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Rosa Abraha is the type of woman who knows what she wants. With her eye set on public office, she is an active dreamer who has taken thoughtful steps toward achieving her goal of helping eliminate health disparities facing vulnerable populations.

A first-generation American whose parents both emigrated from Ethiopia, she feels the call to serve others.

"I just feel like there’s a need and a desire, especially as a minority student in America, to give back to my people in a larger way," explains Abraha, who graduates with a master’s degree in public health from Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Her interest in health began early: In high school, she completed a rigorous medical careers program and received work licensure as a certified nursing assistant. As an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, where she majored in community health, she interned with the National Academy of Science and the Food and Drug Administration. At 20, the ink barely dry on her college diploma, Abraha snagged a coveted position with the National Institutes of Health, where she worked in various capacities as a health education and outreach specialist. 

After three years working in a range of roles, including a post in Alabama managing a safe sleep grant project alongside the Department of Public Health, Abraha was ready to continue her education with a graduate degree.

"I love health communication and outreach," she says. "But I think naturally I like to see things from a higher, more macro view. Working on the ground with the people of Alabama taught me that if I wanted to gain true health equity for vulnerable populations, I would have to build the skills in health policy to advocate for them."

An accomplished leader

After weighing her options, Abraha ultimately chose Rollins based on her experiences with the admissions team and the warmth she felt when she visited campus. "I came here and fell in love with Rollins," she recalls, "so I stayed!"

Abraha knew from the outset that she wanted to focus on health policy. "I learned how to make key connections in law and health and to understand how to use the law as a tool for public health advancement," she says of the degree program.

In terms of applied learning and professional development, Abraha cites her time as president of the Rollins Student Government Association as being transformative. "I think it just gave me so much perspective about systems thinking," she says. "My big goal in health policy is seeing things from the top-down and understanding the development and implementation of rules that benefit all people, and I think in so many ways that was mimicked in this role." 

The opportunity also allowed her to build relationships with leaders at Rollins, including Jim Curran, dean of the school. "He’s one of the people who really influenced me in my time here. Just watching him and his leadership style… it’s taught me a lot about the type of leader I want to be," she says.

Her hard work did not go unnoticed. Last month, Abraha was honored as the 2019 Emory Graduate Student Leader of the Year.

"I’m thrilled Rosa was selected for this award," says Kara Robinson, associate dean of admission and student affairs at Rollins, who nominated Abraha for the award. "She’s a natural leader who possesses that winning combination of determination, empathy and charisma. She’ll leave a lasting impact on public health, as she’s done here at Rollins."

Abraha has officially accepted a public health analyst position with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Preparedness and Response, and hopes to eventually attend law school and pursue public office.

"The more time I spend in public health, the more I see that there’s a strong need for women of color to be represented in Congress," she says. "I’m trying my very best to be one of those women."