HIV on Black College Campuses

How historically black colleges and universities are trying to stop the spread of HIV at their schools and beyond.

BY Michelle Garcia

January 17 2014 11:32 AM ET UPDATED: March 06 2014 8:30 PM ET

Much as the seven sisters colleges educated throngs of women before they were even granted the right to vote, America’s historically black colleges and universities offered higher education to African-Americans long before the civil rights era. The term “historically black colleges and universities,” often shortened to the acronym HBCUs, generally refers to schools that have had a particular mission to educate blacks and existed before 1964. Pennsylvania’s Cheyney University, founded as the Institute for Colored Youth in 1837, is the oldest existing HBCU. Today, there are 103 HBCUs, which still grant 22% of the bachelor’s degrees earned by African-Americans, reports The Network Journal. “Among blacks, 40% of all congressmen, 12.5% of CEOs, 40% of engineers, 50% of professors at non-HBCUs, 50% of lawyers, and 80% of judges are HBCU graduates,” the publication notes.

These institutions clearly serve as an educational bedrock for many black Americans—and are a great place to conduct HIV prevention efforts targeting African-American youth and young adults, a group with some of the fastest-growing infection rates. Unfortunately, by the time kids get to college, it might be too late, says Howard University professor Goulda Downer.

“When the students come to campus, many believe, I’m free for the first time, and I can do whatever I want,” Downer says.

Downer runs Howard’s HIV/AIDS Consortium, an initiative established two years ago to merge all of the campus’s HIV-related prevention efforts, research, professional education, and student-driven projects and groups. As is the case at many other colleges, freshman orientation at Howard includes in-depth sexual education. And students have multiple options when it comes to testing; on-campus residents can even get an HIV test in their dorm rooms.

But that doesn’t mean students are protecting themselves from the virus. Downer says part of the real issue is peer pressure.

“Sometimes the upperclassmen will try to entice the younger girls, and some of them don’t know how to negotiate safe sex,” she says. “Women and men. A lot of them don’t know how. When we look at these kids, none of [their] parents talk to their kids about sex. The only thing kids are being taught is abstinence, and that doesn’t always work.”

Downer counsels numerous students, many with HIV, as well as their partners. In addition to her one-on-one sessions, Howard University offers a screening program, behavioral and biological research on HIV, and a substance abuse outreach program.

Howard is not the only HBCU with an innovative initiative. Administrators at many of these schools understand that their students have already heard the condoms-or-abstinence song and dance. A 2006 College Student Journal study on HIV knowledge at HBCUs found that students didn’t perceive themselves to be at great risk of infection. The same study indicated that many students were undereducated about HIV (young men slightly more so than young women). As Downer suggests, the real lessons that these educated young people will grasp can’t be taught by a stodgy professor lecturing on the harm of sexually transmitted infections. Instead, the most effective lessons about HIV prevention occur at the peer level.

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