Over one million people in the United States over the age of 13 are living with HIV, and over 150,000 of those folks are completely unaware of their infection. This means that one in eight individuals are oblivious of their infection. It is also true that one out of every eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. While we are flooded with breast cancer awareness campaigns, HIV remains a predominantly silent killer.
“It’s a disease of ‘the other,’” says Dr. Dallas Bauman, Assistant Vice President for Campus Residences at Stony Brook University. We don’t own a stake in building awareness. We are too busy pointing our fingers at dissimilar people who have contracted HIV to know that it can happen to our friends, our family, and our colleagues. It can happen to us.
Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of myths to debunk: you can’t contract HIV by sitting on a toilet seat, drinking from a fountain, breathing the air around you, or even from your sweatiest moments at the gym. You won’t catch HIV through a handshake, a hug, or a high-five. You’re even protected from HIV if you choose to swat at mosquitoes while camping or squash a spider in your kitchen.
HIV is spread from an infected person to another person through direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. In the United States, HIV is mostly spread through having sex with someone who has HIV or by sharing needles, syringes or other equipment used to prepare injection drugs with someone who has HIV. There are of course, also some less common ways to become infected, but that’s another post entirely. Let’s focus on the big stuff first, shall we?
According to the Center for Disease control, youth aged 13-24 accounted for nearly 26% percent of all new HIV infections in 2010. It’s time we step up and address this problem head on. Today, World AIDS Day provides us with the perfect opportunity to learn, to share our knowledge, and to advocate for awareness.
That’s exactly what Dr. Bauman has been doing at Stony Brook University (SBU) for the last 30 years. Along side his team of 5 co-instructors, Dallas offers a course called “AIDS Peer Education,” a 6-credit, year-long experiential course focused on increasing awareness, education, and most importantly, behavior change.
I was lucky enough to be on the team of instructors for this transformational course during my time as a Residence Hall Director at SBU. I caught up with Dallas last week to gain a deeper insight on the program and talk through some of his thoughts on creating HIV/AIDS awareness programs on campuses of all sizes.
From the get-go, Dallas knew he had to focus on a peer-to-peer perspective, not simply defined by age, but on experience and credibility. There needed to be a strong connection between those who were interacting with one another: authenticity leads to vulnerability, leads to increased conversation, leads to greater probability for behavior change. To that end, the program prepares thirty students as peer educators through a variety of methods: a two-hour class (“HIV Risk Reduction in the Campus Context”) per week, a two-hour meeting each month focused on role-playing, and one retreat each semester. Each student is assigned one of the six instructors as a mentor, with whom they meet on a monthly basis to discuss their personal process as a peer educator.
Programs like AIDS Peer Education require a significant investment of resources, and while money is an important factor, the time and people dedicated to make it successful can be much harder to come by. Education is a process, not an event. Is it worth the blood, sweat, and tears? Absolutely.
Take for example this short story Dallas shared. Each Tuesday meeting, students are able to volunteer an update on their own progress. One particular Tuesday, one of their students revealed that the program had changed the way they’d viewed their everyday interactions, whether those interactions were related to HIV/AIDS or not. Keen on the bigger picture, Dallas challenged the student to see the greater lesson: “what you’re saying is, it’s become who you are. You have a different view. [The program] has shaped the lens through which you see the world.”
That is the small ripple that will affect big change. Those are the moments we strive for as educators. It is inspired learning at work.
How can we create more moments like this? We start with our own education: check out the statistics about HIV and AIDS, keep current with awareness and testing campaigns, review policies and programs, and learn how to process the information presented by the media. Yes, Charlie Sheen recently came out as HIV positive. Should his celebrity status or reputation have any affect on our perception of individuals who are diagnosed with HIV? No. Should we recognize that we live in a world where it is increasingly difficult to come out as different? Absolutely.
Every person who has the courage to tell their story, especially in the face of ridicule, should be recognized for their bravery. Every person who leads us to a path of risk reduction and behavior change is working to create a safer world.
When you’re ready for the bigger steps, think about what works on your campus. Ask your colleagues about the history of popular courses and student groups – how did they take root? As you plot out your course of action, create your list of allies: who will join you in your quest to bring HIV and AIDS education to your students in a meaningful way, who has the time to invest in the project, and who has the money to back the program when necessary?
World AIDS Day only comes around once every year, so we have to be the ones to demand attention, build momentum, and sustain our energy. Whether you schedule a town hall forum, set up an information table at the cafeteria, or lay the groundwork for a peer education course of your own, do something. The time to act is now.
Bauman, Dallas. Personal interview. 13 Friday 2015.
"Basic Statistics." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Nov. 2015. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
About the Author: By day, Courtney Drew (who goes by Drew) works with the programs for young leaders at Rotary International, a non-profit organization focused on joining leaders to exchange ideas and make the world a better place. Her background is in student development and education; she earned her MA in Liberal Studies from Stony Brook University and her BA in History and Secondary Education from St. Norbert College. Drew’s superpowers include writing, speaking, and training on topics she cares most about: LGBTQ advocacy, leadership development, and inclusivity. She adores her partner, loves cats and live music, and sometimes pretends to like running. Connect with Drew to follow all of her fun adventures. All views and opinions presented in her posts and presentations are her own.