On October 25, New Century College’s Social Action and Integrative Learning (SAIL) program encouraged 84 Mason students to join the 28th annual Walk to End HIV, a five-kilometer fundraising walk and timed run held in Washington DC. The event benefitted Whitman-Walker Health, a nonprofit organization that provides health care to those living with or impacted by HIV.
Ten days preceding the walk, SAIL, in partnership with Wellness, Alcohol, and Violence Education and Services (WAVES), welcomed WAVES associate director Angela Johnson to lead a discussion of HIV/AIDS and the stigma still associated with the disease.
Patty Mathison, associate director of SAIL explained in metro DC, 2.7% of residents are HIV positive, significantly higher than the national average of 1%. Based on these statistics, one in 20 residents is living with HIV. Despite extensive education campaigns, many students are unaware of basic information regarding HIV, and stigmatize those with the disease.
Mathison said, “It’s a battle we run up against. How do we get people to care? Education is the best way to get people to see what’s going on in their own community… Angela (Johnson, of WAVES) has a really great way of connecting with students and helping them understand that this is a pressing concern for our community. We were so fortunate to have her input before the walk.”
Kathleen Welch (2015, criminology) helped to organized SAIL’s participation in the walk. Welch contacted different campus organizations to enable more students to participate in the event. Parking and Transportation Services provided free shuttle services to and from the Vienna Metro, professors teaching courses dealing with community health and related issues encouraged students to attend, as did the leaders of two Living and Learning Communities. Members of other Mason student organizations joined and together represented the university.
Welch said, “Breaking down the stigma associated with HIV is one of our biggest challenges… Getting students to realize that HIV is still a problem and that DC has one of the highest infection rates in the country is another challenge. AIDS is no longer a cause that people are shouting about, but it should be. There are so many other contributing factors that add stress and strain to the lives of those who are living with HIV. We need to be giving the issue greater coverage than we are.”
Mathison noted that although the number of Mason students who joined SAIL at the walk is double that of last year, she hopes participation continues to grow. “My hope is that students understand this is something very real, especially in our community. The stigma is something we all need to work to dispel,” she said.
SAIL will offer an alternative spring break program for those interested in assisting those living with HIV. More information is available at http://sail.gmu.edu/alternative-break/alternative-break-trips.
WAVES offers free HIV testing each week, and information about this is available at http://waves.gmu.edu/healthy-sexuality/sti-hiv-testing/.