An exclusive interview with the new president of St. Catherine University, ReBecca “Becky” Roloff

The 11th President of St. Kate’s talks about indirect paths through college, her journey to success, the value of a women’s college and the importance of health and wellness, understanding institutional racism, and her golden retriever Teddy. Becky’s accomplishments are abundant, her joy is contagious and her way of living is nothing short of inspirational. Prepare to be amazed and feel lucky to have such an incredible leader leading our community!

Libbie Mitchell: “How is it going so far?”

Becky Roloff: “How do you think it’s going? I think it’s going okay. I’m trying to enter the ecosystem gently. It’s a moving train, and I’m just trying to jump on the moving train. I really feel like I’ve been here for 44 years because I came here in the fall of 1972, so that’s 44 years. You know, there’s been different roles, but I’ve obviously never been in this one here. I’ve been a student, and then I was on the board for 12 years and chaired it for two terms. I’ve just been involved in and out; over the years I’ve always been a donor. And when this opportunity came, I had a chance to come back.”

LM: “What did you study when you were at St. Kates?”

BR: “I basically studied all the sciences. Next to the pictures they used to put of all the freshman, I think it said “Pre-Law” and “Pre-Med,” which should have been a clue that I had no idea what I wanted to do. Then I think I declared maybe Chemistry as my major…that didn’t go so well. I did get an A in Chemistry, but I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t-I just can’t do this.” I pretty much wandered my sophomore- took a lot of liberal arts classes. Then Sister Ann Elyse, who was the registrar, sat me down the end of my sophomore year and said, “Undecided is not a major at St. Catherine’s. You have to declare a major.” A really dear friend of mine had been trying to talk me into declaring a business major. And I-I just refused at first. But my back was against the wall, I had to declare, I could get a business major done, and that’s how I got a business administration major. When I took my first economics class, I loved it. To me, that was a perfect blend of science and people. *Silent*…It was not a direct path! *laughs*”

"If you have the chance to go to an all women's college or be involved in all women things, it’s special and unique" -ReBecca Roloff. Photo credit: Rebecca Zenefski '10, By Rebecca Studios.

Rebecca Zenefski, Rebecca Studios

“If you have the chance to go to an all women’s college or be involved in all women things, it’s special and unique” -ReBecca Roloff. Photo credit: Rebecca Zenefski ’10, By Rebecca Studios.

 

LM: “What’s the greatest influence you have gotten from going to St. Kate’s?”

BR: “Wow. Well, my parents both had 8th-grade educations. I’m from a small town in Dickinson, North Dakota. I had never seen a woman in a leadership position- there were no women attorneys, no women doctors. You know, in Dickinson the nuns were the teachers, there were female teachers, and there was a female principal in grade school. In high school, I had a priest principal, but the assistant principal was Sister Carmen-she really ran it but didn’t get the credit. *sarcasm* That’s shocking. So when I came here, the president was a woman, the people at the front of the class were primarily women; I was kind of like, ‘Wow!’ I think seeing women do all those things around you was life changing. I think it was just the environment of, ‘You could be as smart as you wanted to be.’ And everyone around me was intelligent. I just felt like everyone was really smart and I loved being around smart people; it helped me become smarter and wiser myself. The good friends and the feeling on the campus of the community also had a great influence on me. I remember hearing people criticize all women’s college because they go, ‘It’s not the real world. They are kind of creating this special place, and then they have to go out in the real world, and you find that you’ve kind of created an ideal situation.’

I thought about this during the Olympics, and I thought, ‘You know what? If someone really wants to excel in swimming, they move to Colorado to whatever is the national swimming centers and they live and breath with the best teachers and other people who want to swim, right? Same with all the other athletes- the skating people go to some place in Michigan, the gymnast people go to some place in the United States, and so on. And I thought, ‘How is that different from St. Kate’s or an all women’s college, where you take people who have this vision for their life and go to a place they want to be nurtured to be successful with the vision they have? How is that different from a gymnast? Or a swimmer? Or anything else?’ That’s what I think is the beauty of an all women’s college. If you have the chance to go to an all women’s college or be involved in all women things, it’s special and unique. It really nurtures the leadership and potential of the women who either get it themselves or someone in their life gets it and helps them get to a place where they can get it. I think an all women’s education is the launcher. I don’t think it separates you from the real world; I think it prepares you to survive in the real world and to be really strong in the real world. It’s very empowering because the world doesn’t see women that way. You’ve gotta have that booster rocket behind you.”

LM: “You make me so proud I chose this school!”

BR: “I think you should be really proud! I think it’s a great investment in yourself and you know you can do it. You’re told all the time you can do it. I would be stunned if there was any woman who left here with less self-esteem than when she came in. And that’s not true when you get plunged into a lot of situations. That’s why I would never do triathlons if I didn’t do all women triathlons. I need that support and encouragement when I’m not sure of myself doing that. I even joined an all women’s ski group because I needed that support to learn so I could gain my confidence.”

LM: “I saw that you completed you 8th triathlon this year, that’s just unbelievable.”

BR: “Well, I’m slow. My goal is to finish with dignity. I mean, I don’t break any speed records, but I thought, ‘You know what, every year I’m a year older, and if my times stay the same, that’s pretty good.’”

LM: “How has your physically active lifestyle affected the other facets of your life?”

BR: “I think, ‘Look good, feel good, do good.’ I mean, everybody finds a way to manage stress. In school, I didn’t have sports- I was a debater. I graduated in 1972, which was the year Title IX was passed. So when I was with my trainer, Leigha, today, I was reflecting on how hard it is to imagine a life without access to girl’s sports. But if you’re my age or older, you didn’t. Anyways, I always loved to swim- I was a lifeguard, and I loved the water. If I had ever been an athlete, it would have been swimming. I like more individual things; hand-eye coordination is not my thing. I always exercised, but I really didn’t get super into it until the YWCA started the all women’s triathlon in the region.

I thought, ‘Gall, if we’re starting this, I should do it.’ Then I went through a whole panic meltdown. You know, I always swam, but I never seriously biked and I had never run. But, I just set that goal out there to do it, and it was really fun once I learned the process of doing it. But I think it is really about stress management, and it’s about taking care of yourself. If you don’t do that, how can you sustain your energy? You save no time by not taking care of your health. When you get sick, you’re going to be laying in that bed anyways. I think to feel strong, it helps you mentally, too. It’s not just the endorphins you get, but it’s your own confidence that makes a big difference. I am such a big advocate of wellness. Even if you just go out for a walk and do something that makes you feel like you’re taking responsibility for your health, that’s significant.”

LM: “Is there anything you’re bringing from your leadership at the YWCA to St. Kate’s?”

BR: “When I was at the YWCA, I really came to understand institutionalized racism and noticed when a system discriminates with a hundred little decisions that got there. I’ll give you an example. Several years ago in the Legislature, a law was put into place. It said that if a child is absent more than ten days during the year, there is no more aid available for them. Now this is ten days in a calendar year, and our schools run 12 months; it doesn’t take much for ten days to pass. Let’s say a kid get’s a cold. How fast would you burn up ten days in 52 weeks at your school? Pretty fast. It had been 25 days, which was already pretty restrictive, and then it was ten days. The legislative thought was, ‘Well, if you’re not in school over a certain amount of time, we shouldn’t pay for it.’ So the case that we took to the legislatures is that this is institutionalized racism, because the children who are most likely not to have health care or whose parents don’t have access to free health care are children of color. We told the legislature, ‘If you keep this law at ten days and not put it back to 25 days, you are institutionalizing the failure of these small children of color. Now that’s not what your law said, but that’s the effect of the law. So a white child’s parents coming from the middle-upper class background didn’t have to worry about those ten things because they weren’t receiving their subsidy from the state. But if you were receiving your subsidy from the state, that was because you already were at the poverty level and qualified for it. That change from 25 days down to 10 days disproportionately affected kids of color.’ And people, God bless them, would sit and listen and go, ‘I never thought of it that way.’ And I went, ‘You know what, years ago I didn’t understand that either.’ So that was the gift from the YWCA for the last 12 years, other than all the people I met and loved and getting into triathlons,which I would never have done if I didn’t have that job; now I can’t imagine not doing them!

The true gift was really understanding what institutionalized racism was how you dismantle that, and how you have to work with a community to dismantle it. It’s very hard work to do, and you can see that across the boards. It’s not just in the justice system; it’s in the housing situation, as well as in the medical situation. How does your zip code determine your health? That experience in the last 12 years is what really set me up to do this job.”

LM: “Anything else you would like students to know about you?”

RR: “Well, let’s see. I hope people just stop by and say hello; the doors are always open. My goal is to eventually spend one night a week over in Rauenhorst in a two-bedroom dorm room so I can go to an evening event. I’m married, and I have a 90-pound golden retriever named Teddy. I told my husband, ‘The only thing I’m asking you to do is just to get Teddy certified so that he can come on campus for the stress relieving week.’ Oh, he is just the most fun guy! My husband said Teddy missed his calling; he said he would have been a great frat dog. And I went, ‘Well now he can be a sorority dog! These women will go wild. He’s so handsome. He’s so big!’ We should have named him Elvis- hunka, hunka burnin’ love! Oh, he’s just a doll. I can’t wait ‘till people can meet Teddy.

Rebecca Roloff’s Inauguration is October 11th, starting with a 10:30 a.m. Liturgy in Our Lady of Victory Chapel, then 2:30 p.m. Installation in The O’Shaughnessy, with a reception immediately following.

Rebecca Zenefski, Rebecca Studios

ReBecca Roloff’s Inauguration is October 11, 2016 at St. Catherine University, starting with a 10:30 a.m. liturgy in Our Lady of Victory Chapel, then 2:30 p.m. installation in The O’Shaughnessy, with a reception immediately following. Photo credit: Rebecca Zenefski ’10, By Rebecca Studios.

 

Another message I would like to send is don’t give up. You can do it, you can do it, you can do it! The world needs strong women leaders who take themselves seriously because if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will either. That would be my thing- you have to take yourself seriously and invest in yourself. That goes back to exercising and taking care of yourself. It says that you think something of yourself- no one else can make you do that. And watch for Teddy.”

ReBecca Roloff’s Inauguration is October 11, 2016 starting with a 10:30 a.m. Liturgy in Our Lady of Victory Chapel, then 2:30 p.m. Installation in The O’Shaughnessy, with a reception immediately following. RSVP by typing “Inauguration of our 11th President” into the St. Kate’s website search engine and clicking on “RSVP Now” to celebrate with the St. Kate’s community. And remember to watch for Teddy during Mid-Terms and Finals week.

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