When Regan Hofmann ’89, was a young journalist, she dreamed of being a war correspondent. The creative writing major worked for CBS News shortly after graduation and aspired to use reporting in war torn areas to help people understand—and resolve—the forces that drive conflict around the world. She says, “Being a writer influences how you see and move through the world. I have always been drawn to the most difficult things and I have always seen the incredible power of the press to raise awareness, make change and spare lives.” She felt being a war correspondent was the ultimate test of her writing skills; she longed to use her pen as a device that could bring help to others. But when Hofmann expressed her desire to work on the front lines to her bosses, she was told that women weren’t being sent to report in certain countries as it posed too much risk—both to the reporter and to the network. “They explained it would be counterproductive to our coverage to have me captured or killed,” she said.
But Hofmann, who grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, didn’t abandon her dream. She set it aside, temporarily. Hofmann left CBS News to work for several advertising agencies in New York City, including Young & Rubicam and Saatchi & Saatchi. She was still interested in messaging and advertising allowed her to continue to use language and imagery to influence an audience. After several years, she left New York for Atlanta where she launched a monthly arts and entertainment magazine known as Poets, Artists, and Madmen. Eventually, she returned to the Northeast and worked for, and became the editor-in-chief of, New Jersey Life—a luxury lifestyle monthly in the mid ’90s.
But her job wasn’t the only reason she came north; there was another reason Hofmann returned to her hometown to live: she’d been diagnosed with HIV.
On the outside, Hofmann appeared a healthy, young, successful woman facing a bright future. What people didn’t know was that she was also facing a life living with a retrovirus that threatened to kill her.
Diagnosed in 1996, Hofmann told only her immediate family that she had contracted the virus. The doctors who diagnosed her said she had one, maybe two at most, years to live. It was false information; she had in fact just contracted the virus but because her general practitioner, who was unfamiliar with HIV, didn’t know that the blood work of someone in the midst of “seroconversion” (the period shortly after initial infection when the virus becomes active and starts replicating in the body) who is newly infected can mirror the blood work of someone who’s been living with the virus a while, he told her that her time was limited.
Suddenly, Hofmann’s dream to use her writing skills to help others was eclipsed by a more pressing reality: simply, to survive herself. Ever an optimist, in an effort to face her premature death, she tried making a list of things she would be spared by dying young. She wouldn’t have to save for retirement, watch her face wrinkle or experience the pain of seeing her loved ones die first.
But then, she survived.
One year, then a second. And fifteen more.
Ten years into living silently with HIV, Hofmann decided to become an AIDS activist and go public with her HIV status. POZ magazine (poz.com) was looking for a new editor-in-chief. Its CEO reached out to Hofmann to see if she’d be interested. For four years prior, Hofmann had written anonymously for POZ about the challenges of living with HIV. It had been her first step toward realizing her long-held dream of telling stories to help make the world a better place. “Other people living with HIV would read my column and write to POZ sharing how what I’d written had inspired or supported them,” she says. “It was then I personally knew the power of journalism. Deciding to go public with my HIV status as POZ’s editor was a way to prove to myself that I was no longer ashamed to say I am living with HIV, and a way to hopefully help others feel the same way. I finally came to the place where I realized I was ready to fight back against the stigma that surrounds HIV. Everyone deserves the same opportunity to access health care and support for a medical condition. And the stigma surrounding HIV continues to keep people from accessing the life protecting care they need and deserve. Treatment doubles as protection as it reduces—by 96%—the chance the virus will spread. But treatment can’t protect individual and public health if people are too scared to come forward for testing and treatment. I thought that by sharing my story, it would encourage more people to connect to care.”
Her dream of using journalism as advocacy never waned; with the offer to run POZ on the table, Hofmann had a chance to realize her long held desire to write about difficult and disturbing matters.
In 2009, Hofmann told her story of being a woman living with HIV who works as an AIDS activist more fully in a memoir entitled I Have Something to Tell You (Simon & Schuster). In the years since taking the helm at POZ, she became a board member of the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and a global ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She serves on a committee advising U.S. Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebellius on the issues of HIV/AIDS and viral hepatitis. She has spoken numerous times at the White House and on Capitol Hill on the issue of HIV/AIDS. In October, she left her job at POZ to work as a consultant focused on global health.
Looking into her eyes as she told me her story, I was so struck by her journey that I wondered out loud about the role Trinity played in her life. Given the scope of her work, I doubted her college years loomed large. She immediately told me I was wrong. She said, “My years at Trinity were critically important for what I battled later in life. At Trinity, I learned how to write well, to think in a 360-degree way on an issue and I got comfortable questioning the status quo. Even the physical tests of crew and rugby—the two sports I was involved in at Trinity—conditioned me for being able to endure mental and physical pain in ways that have come in handy in my life and work. Trinity taught me invaluable skills, it opened up my mind and it toughened up my body.”
Several years ago, she journeyed for the first time to Africa. “I had met a lot of people living with HIV in all kinds of circumstances in the United States,” she said. “As a reporter focused on the global pandemic, I wanted to have first-hand knowledge of what it was like to live with HIV in a developing nation.”
Standing on the front lines of the AIDS fight in South Africa in Soweto—an urban slum outside Johannesburg—she realized she would never be the same. As she visited people in Soweto, shots were fired and the group she was with had to take cover and eventually, leave. “In that moment, I realized that ironically, I had become a war correspondent of sorts after all,” Hofmann says. “The war on AIDS, while ultimately a theoretically winnable one given the medical tools and knowledge we have now, is far from over. Being in Soweto has never left me. It’s why I continue to fight so hard every day: because we can begin to end AIDS now, it heightens our moral imperative to do just that.”
It is rare that you meet someone who is living a life whose purpose is so clear. Hofmann has dedicated her career to two main disciplines: the pursuit of human rights and global health. Journalism is her weapon of choice. She has applies her passion and skills daily to worldwide issues that impact, literally, tens of millions of people. Hofmann has a positive energy that I experienced physiologically sitting in front of her. All Trinity students can learn from Regan’s sense of personal empowerment, especially those who are trying to realize their own dreams. Hofmann’s advice for students? “Never abandon who you know yourself to be and who you wish to become. The path to get yourself there may seem unclear at times and life is bound to take strange twists, but as long as you keep focused on your destination and keep moving forward, you will get there one day.”
Hofmann’s book, I Have Something to Tell You, is available on amazon.com. Her website is reganhofmann.com.