HIV on Black College Campuses

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com January 17 2014 12:32 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.

Mississippi’s Jackson State University has a “popular opinion leaders” program in which young men on campus engage their peers in natural, organic conversations about HIV prevention. Freshmen at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., get HIV education as part of a required introductory health course, which hammers home the basic information such as proper condom use and STI prevention facts, and the class can be rehashed to student organizations or in low-stakes environments like residence halls.

In another example of peer counseling, Georgia’s Fort Valley State University has instituted gender-specific campaigns that convey positive examples of sexual responsibility. North Carolina Central University in Durham has a social media effort that delivers HIV prevention advice to students through Twitter. Norfolk State University in Virginia promoted its gender-specific HIV prevention and awareness program by offering $20 Visa gift cards to students who attend.

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, Hampton University in Virginia earned an $85,000 grant for its Peers in Prevention program, in which a cross-section of the student body is trained on HIV prevention education and expected to relay that information to other students. That initiative smartly targets incoming freshmen, students who, experts say, need a sexual health primer as soon as they set foot on campus.

“Our desire is to create a campus community that is aware of how these issues adversely affect minority college students,” says Darylnet Lyttle, Hampton student health center administrator, “and how they can decrease their risk of being affected by them.”

Morehouse, a prominent all-male college based in Atlanta, hosted a multicampus event in 2012, bringing together alumni, representatives of local AIDS service organizations, and students for a panel discussion on HIV, masculinity, and homophobia—something that the university was previously criticized for not taking on. Clark-Atlanta University and Spelman College students joined in the event as well. The campus also was the site of the White House’s LGBT Conference on HIV/AIDS, which brought the issue to campus in a major way. The conference was aimed at health professionals, but that sort of exposure could be the kind of encouragement that college students planning to enter the medical field may need.

Meharry Medical College in Nashville not only educates African-American medical students but also aims to address the medical needs of people of color, who are disproportionately affected by HIV. A campus initiative called Project SAVED! allows HBCU medical students, faith leaders, and health care providers to work together to reduce HIV among African-Americans through biological and behavioral research. The goal of the four-year-old program, a joint project of Meharry’s Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is to empower medical students to become effective doctors for HIV-positive patients. Training includes guidance on administering HIV tests and ways to reduce stigma in a hospital setting.

Donald Alcendor, an assistant professor at Meharry who is deeply involved in the program, is trying to lead the way among HBCUs with programs to not only teach future doctors about HIV but encourage more research about people of color and the virus.

“I have developed an HIV 101 for people in line to be physicians and dentists,” Alcendor says. “We talk to them about HIV on a higher level, to get them familiar with what [health professionals] do. We can get something done with HBCUs that have teaching hospitals like Meharry.”

Alcendor believes that creating “one-stop shops” in communities of color based around HBCUs will encourage engagement among young medical professionals while providing HIV care and preventive services to those in need. And since HBCUs have produced some of the country’s most prominent African-American leaders—including Oprah Winfrey (Tennessee State), W.E.B. Du Bois (Fisk University), Martin Luther King Jr. (Morehouse), and Alice Walker (Spelman)—the answer to ending HIV may be sitting in a lecture hall in Atlanta.