Born to serve

Virginia Bales Harris

by Pam Auchmutey

Long grounded in the RSPH, Virginia Bales Harris leads alumni for Campaign Emory

Virginia Bales Harris, 71C, 77MPH, came to enroll in Emory's first MPH class by way of the point system. Former CDC director David Sencer used the system to recruit CDC staff for the MPH program that he co-founded with Emory faculty.

"He'd point to you or call you up and say, 'You are going,' " says Harris, whose career with the CDC spanned 35 years.

Harris has been tapped many times since, most recently as RSPH alumni chair for Campaign Emory. As the school's alumni leader for the university's $1.6 billion fund-raising initiative, Harris builds on a legacy of serving the RSPH and Emory. She currently is a member of the school's Dean's Council and has spearheaded fund-raising efforts for the RSPH in years past.



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"Service" has been part of her vocabulary since childhood. The daughter of a U.S. Air Force officer and an elementary school teacher, Harris grew up in Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C. "My parents were committed to public service," she says.

Her own career reflects similar dedication. During her early years with the CDC, Harris became grounded in programs for tuberculosis control, environmental health, and epidemiology. In the early 1980s, she served as special assistant to CDC Deputy Director Bill Watson, just as the agency expanded its scope beyond infectious disease to focus on health promotion.

Later, as deputy director for what is now the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, she played a pivotal role in team projects, such as establishing the state-based Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System and the Public Health Prevention Specialist Program. As deputy director for program management under CDC director Jeffrey Koplan, Harris helped update the agency's master building plan and secure funding for new facilities. She then directed the Division of Adult and Community Health, which allowed her to resume working in public health programs and continue mentoring young professionals.

Now, more than 30 years and several career awards later, Harris credits her MPH degree with expanding her view of public health. "It was also important that I had connections outside of work. Emory has given me that."

Awareness of public health in general, Harris found, widened considerably over the years. "Elected officials and people around the world have a basic understanding of public health and how important it is to our well-being," she notes. "The world is changing fast. That's what the RSPH prepares students for. The key is to learn how to keep learning."

That's what Harris intends to do as she leads alumni fund-raising to support the RSPH. "Campaign Emory is a great way to connect with alumni," she says. "There were a handful of graduates in my class, and the number of alumni now [almost 5,000] is tremendous. I run into people all the time who are alums, which gives you an opportunity to meet so many people."

"The school is my touchstone and my home," she adds. "It has offered me the best opportunity and the best way to serve."