Daniel Szymczyk remembers being a college student living with HIV.
“I was getting my bachelor’s degree when I seroconverted. And I really saw that there was little to no [financial] support, especially at the time when I was living in the South,” he recalls.
Realizing the lack of financial support for students like him led Szymczyk to create the HIV League, a nonprofit organization that provides scholarships to poz students. Szymczyk — who’s been a social work intern and counselor at New York nonprofits including Housing Works and the Ali Forney Center — said the six-year-old HIV League runs the only national scholarship for students living with HIV.
These students often have experienced discrimination, stigma, and a host of other obstacles. The discrimination can be due to direct and systemic racism, homophobia, transphobia, homelessness, substance misuse or abuse, and other socioeconomic issues, according to the HIV League. Add to that the weight of the financial burden found in higher education, and it can be a lot for a person to handle.
The HIV League recently announced its 2021 cohort of scholars who will receive HIV League Scholarships or HIV League Micro-Scholarships.
“These 39 Scholars have shown how promising they are as students living with HIV through their educational accomplishments, leadership, and service,” the HIV League said in a statement.
The HIV League Scholarship can be worth up to $7,000 over the course of two years. The organization also offers a $3,500 scholarship for one year of study to a full-time student and a $1,500 scholarship for a part-time student.
For the last two years, the HIV League have given out micro-scholarships, which arose out of the pandemic.
“We saw a huge need among many students, not just students living with HIV, but pretty much all students across the entire nation, really struggling, really trying to make ends meet,” Szymczyk says. “And we saw that there was a need for the students that we serve, a.k.a. students living with HIV, a need for onetime, like, kind of what we termed micro-scholarships.” The micro-scholarships awarded were worth $1,000.
“We’re hoping to continue it for next year as well, because we’re really seeing the impact that these micro-scholarships have on students,” Szymczyk says.
The recipients this year include students originally from Cameroon and Mexico and students from California and Washington State.
After five years, the HIV League has supported 90 students with $290,500 in scholarship funding since 2017. Funding comes from corporations and organizations such as Gilead, AIDS United, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, the Campbell’s Family Foundation, and JustForFans along with many individual donors.
To be eligible for the scholarships, students must be living with HIV, have been enrolled as a full-time or part-time student at an institution of higher education in the U.S. for a least a year, and have at least a 2.5 GPA.
The HIV League has specifically looked to bring equity to higher education through scholarships for trans students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or other people of color. The league had a goal to provide at least $10,000 in scholarships to BIPOC trans students living with HIV and has now been able to provide $12,000 to three such students, Szymczyk says.
Most of the students who receive the league’s scholarships are age 22 to 39, but students as young as 17 and as old as 50 have also gotten funding. Almost 65 percent of the scholars are first-generation college students.
Each year, the organization gets hundreds of applications for only a few spots. In order to be as fair as possible, each application is screened several times by board members and volunteer reviewers.
Name any other medical diagnosis or disability other than HIV, Szymczyk says, and there’s a scholarship for it. “If someone is diagnosed with HIV, that old-school thought is they’re not going to be around much longer, why invest in them?” Szymczyk says.
Finding outside allies for the scholarships has been difficult, he says.
“The most support that we have received when it comes to just spreading the word of the scholarship being available is from other HIV-related organizations, specifically like AIDS service organizations and organizations who serve like gender-diverse populations,” Szymczyk explains. He says universities haven’t been extremely helpful in marketing the scholarships.
Regardless of the complications, Szymczyk says the HIV League just wants to show the world how deserving and hardworking students living with HIV are.
“We’re trying to communicate just the potential of students living with HIV,” he says. The students, he says, haven’t let HIV stop them from achieving their goals.
“Their HIV status really does play a part into what direction they go into when it comes to goals, aspirations, and what they want to do later in life,” Szymczyk says. “Students living with HIV have such a huge impact on their community.”