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For College Student Volunteers, AIDS Conference Opens Door to Awareness, Activism

WASHINGTON – Ayesha Ibrahim and Shekira Ramdass asked people to attend a discussion on techniques used in Nairobi, Kenya, to help create a clean water and sanitation project.

Malcolm Crawford played a game called “Find the Ball” by hiding a tennis ball behind his back with “HIV” written on it to highlight people with the virus resemble those without it.

These and other college students conducted important organizing activities during the 19th International AIDS Conference, which was held in Washington, D.C. The nearly week-long event featured speeches by former First Lady Laura Bush, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, actress Debra Messing and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Sir Elton John.

The event, which attracted more than 23,000 delegates from 195 countries, was themed “Turning the Tide Together”, highlighting the global dimensions of the fight against HIV/AIDS. Attendees learned that globally more than 2,400 people a day between 15 and 24 were infected with HIV last year and that sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 23.5 million of the 34 million people living with HIV worldwide.

Student volunteers attending this worldwide event said they benefited from hands-on organizing experiences, increased their chances in obtaining health-related employment after graduation, and networked with youth and high-ranking officials from around the world.

Students also took in the education-oriented entertainment, including vibrant dance routines and lively musical performances from performers dedicated to spreading HIV/AIDS awareness. One performance featured a Brazilian theater group that showcased a provocative skit on safe sex with a man holding a banana and a woman strapping a huge condom on it.

Civic engagement is a voluntary act higher education institutions expect students to conduct on a regular basis. However, the topic of HIV/AIDS on some college campuses is overlooked, experts say. It’s conventional wisdom that public health campaigns, which include events such as international conferences, open themselves to student and other volunteers. 

“I could have been at home chilling and sleep right now, but it is important to be here. Plus, this conference fits with my major,” said Ibrahim, 21, who’s entering her senior year at Georgetown University majoring in nursing with a focus in international health certificate. “HIV is a human rights issue. Having a healthy population makes a healthy society.”

Unlike Ibrahim, who received a fellowship from the United Nations AIDS program to attend the conference, Crawford studies advertising and plays football at Howard University. He’s involved with The Grassroots Project, a nonprofit organization that uses Division 1 athletes to discuss HIV/AIDS prevention with at-risk youth.

“I have fun talking to kids. It’s important to tell kids early that HIV is a virus that can kill,” said Crawford, 21, who enters his senior year. “We put the kids in groups and [ask] them what’s their favorite sport. Then compare it to D.C. in terms of one in 20 people have HIV. That number hits them right there.”

Dr. Ted Coleman, professor and chair of the Department of Health Science and Human Ecology at California State University-San Bernardino, says there’s some complacency that HIV is not a big deal because people are living healthy lives with the virus. Coleman is also a member of the American College Health Association and chairs its Coalition of Allies for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Health.

“There are still millions of people dying without the means to be treated. Some people of [low income and minority] statuses don’t get helped. We need our young people to continue the fight that so many people have done 20 years before them,” he said.

The first International AIDS Conference was held in Atlanta in 1985, the same year actor Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS. He died less than three months later. Last week was the first time the U.S. hosted the conference since it was held in San Francisco 22 years ago.

The Washington conference was personal for Ramdass, 19, whose aunt is HIV-positive. Ramdass’ aunt informed her about the UNAIDS fellowship program and applied.

“That’s how I got here to the conference. Some of these organizations I have heard of before and they are from all over the world. It’s just amazing,” said Ramdass, who will begin her sophomore year next month studying international relations at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. “It is important to get a start on your career early. I know what I want in my life: an education and a career helping people.”

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