WASHINGTON—As a panel of AIDS activists and educators drove home an impassioned and frank prevention message aimed at minority college-aged students—those who account for more than 55 percent of new AIDS cases—it wasn’t enough to get even two dozen Howard University students inside a small auditorium in the student Center on a rainy Friday afternoon to hear it.
The event was just one of many non-sports activities planned around the much-anticipated weekend football matchup between Morehouse College and Howard during the AT&T Nation’s Football Classic.
But that was okay with Jason Panda, CEO of bCondoms, a co-sponsor of the event. “The discussion,” he said, “was an opportunity to touch lives and educate students whether five or 500 showed up.”
bCondoms, a new Black-owned condom brand founded by Panda and two fellow Morehouse College alumni, and Greater Than AIDS, a national media campaign, are staging similar AIDS awareness events at other Black college campuses as part of the newly launched HBCU bHealthy Tour. The tour, which kicked off on Sept. 3 at Norfolk State University, will also stop at Benedict College, Morgan State University, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, North Carolina A&T State University, Spelman College, and Morehouse College where it will conclude on Oct. 22.
Organizers say they want to leverage attendance at HBCU homecomings and football classics to help promote health and wellness, while marketing a condom company that they describe as socially responsible and poised to “make a change in the trajectory of HIV/AIDS in our community.”
For Erin Snowden, Howard’s director of Health Education, every day on campus is about trying to save a young life from contracting HIV/AIDS or some other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
“HIV and STDs are problems, college students having sex and with multiple partners and not using protection, well these are real problems,” said Snowden, one of the panelists.
But too often, Snowden said, candid conversations around HIV don’t occur in the Black community or on campus. Making her campus office “a welcoming safe place where the discussion is laid back,” she said, is helping to attract more students who are in need of HIV services, education, and testing. But many stay away from the campus office because of fear and the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
“It’s me against 10,000 students,” said Snowden who alone visits every campus dorm once a month to meet with students and do HIV testing.
At Morehouse, stigma surrounding AIDS “was alive and well” when Panda was a student. Since graduating, Panda said he knows now that those classmates who reportedly died from causes described as “incurable cancer or incurable meningitis” actually contracted and died of AIDS.
Stigma and denial, most on the four-member panel concluded, can be as lethal to students on Black college campuses as the disease itself when administrators don’t act to protect their students or talk openly about the impact of a disease that is preventable. Imena Johnson, a junior psychology major who attended the discussion, called the university administration “old-fashioned” and unwilling to confront the disease and share information.
“As young people, we need to break the silence,” Johnson said.
As director of community outreach and partnerships for MetroTeen AIDS, Angel Brown’s prevention message during the forum took on an even greater urgency when she reminded students of the added health risks that come with being young, Black, and sexually active in the nation’s capital, a city that has the dubious distinction of being America’s AIDS capital and the city with the highest HIV infection rate (3 percent) in the country, according to a D.C. Department of Health report released in June.
Students also saw the face of AIDS during the panel discussion. It was 27-year-old Marvelyn Brown, an ambassador for Greater Than AIDS, and the author of The Naked Truth: Young Beautiful and HIV Positive. Brown, a panelist, was a 19-year-old student at Volunteer State Community College in Tennessee when she contracted AIDS.
For Brown, hearing about the number of students on campuses who test positive for AIDS or even being concerned about the impact of HIV/AIDS were not deterrents for her and she doubts that such information would be enough to change minds and behaviors among today’s college students, she said.
AIDS mattered to her when it hit home. “I didn’t care about HIV until it happened to me. You can’t wait to care about HIV/AIDS. Students need to care before it happens to you.”
“It’s a disease where there is no cure,” she added.