Colleges Aim to Combat AIDS Apathy
If an infallible nationwide test were done today, it would find that between three and four million Americans would test positive for the AIDS virus, according to Jeffrey S. Epperly, an educator at the Massachusetts AIDS Action Committee.
Of these, 21 percent would be between the ages of 20 and 29. Many members of this group would have contracted the disease in college, as it can take up to seven years for the disease's symptoms to become apparent.
In face of the AIDS epidemic, university administrators and educators across the country are struggling to convey the danger of the disease to college students.
Many schools have formed special task forces to deal with AIDS education. Others have made new policies to deal with victims of the disease.
But despite these efforts, the prevalent attitude about AIDS among heterosexual students is apathy or detachment, an attitude of, "It can't happen to me."
"There is concern, but it's on a very superficial level," says junior John A. Dabell, co-coordinator of the Peer Sexuality Outreach program at the University of California at Berkeley.
"I don't see too much of anyone being afraid of AIDS. It blows me away, because I'm terrified," says one member of the Lesbian, Bisexual and Gay Alliance at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "But most homosexual males are worried," says the student, who requested anonymity.
And although students may understand that AIDS can kill them, all too often they fail to take appropriate precautions to avoid contracting the disease.
"My impression from talking to students who discuss this kind of thing with me is that undergraduates are still very far from behaving in ways the medical community would see as safe," says Roger Lehecka, Dean of Students at Columbia. "We're moving in that direction, but we're still far from that," he says.
A survey done by a university-created AIDS task force at the UMass Amherst revealed that "most students know how to protect themselves from the virus but weren't doing it," says David Kraft, the school's executive director of health services.
"People have to start learning that they have to talk about sex, and make decisions before they do it instead of just falling into bed," says Tufts junior John E. Orcutt, co-coordinator of the university's Lesbian and Gay Community.
"[In college], the last thing on your mind is dying. There are too many baubles, bangles, and beads dangling in front of your eyes to worry about AIDS," Epperly says.
Though students may be more apathetic than health care professionals would wish, both administrators and students say they think people are more concerned about AIDS now than a year or two ago.
"It's amazing how many students didn't start thinking about AIDS until Rock Hudson died," says Sandra Caron, health educator at Cornell.
"While most students are still apathetic about the problem, most are realizing it's a simple thing to practice safer sex or abstinence," says Dr. Beverlie Conant Sloane, director of health education at Dartmouth.
About 20 concerned Dartmouth students, most of whom are heterosexual, this year formed a group called Responsible AIDS Information at Dartmouth (RAID), which is attempting to teach students about AIDS. Among the planned activities are "road shows" with skits about AIDS that will travel to all the campus dorms, says senior James R. Bramson, RAID's co-founder.
Part of the problem with controlling AIDS in college is that "nobody's really sure them-selves where they've really been," Bramson says. AIDS "spreads pretty easily on a campus, even if [the students] aren't especially promiscuous," he says.
Dartmouth is only one of some 30 schools nationwide that in recent years have instituted peer sex education with an emphasis on AIDS information.
UMass has a Peer Sex Education Program, which arms students with free condoms to distribute when they hold safe sex information sessions in the residence halls, which house some 12,000 students.
And at UCal Berkeley, about 12 students are receiving course credit for taking a class and leading a volunteer project in which they lead discussion in sexuality and AIDS education, according to Cara L. Vaughn, the public information manager at the Student Health Service.
Berkeley has also distributed more than 1000 copies of a handbook called "AIDS Education on the College Campus," which resulted from a state grant the school received to develop a model for AIDS education on campus, Vaughn says.
Cornell has taken strong measures to combat the AIDS crisis, despite its relative immunity because its campus is far from a major city, says health educator Sandra Caron.
It's "amazing" that Cornell recently created a position within its health service to deal with sexuality, and AIDS in particular, says Caron, who has held the post for a month. In the past five-and-a-half years, Caron has set up peer sex education groups at some 30 schools nationwide.
During AIDS Awareness Week early this month, many schools took the opportunity to present slide shows, speakers, and panel discussions, and to distribute condoms, booklets and safer sex kits to student.
In western Massachusetts, the entire five college area was involved in AIDS Awareness Week, where speeches and panel presentations were well attended, says Debra Edelman, a health educator at UMass.
Tufts invited various speakers for the week, including Janet Mitchell, associate professor at Harvard Medical School, and author Cindy Patton.
But Director of Tufts Health Education Mary Sturtevant says she thinks the week was overscheduled, because the turnout for many of the events was disappointing.
At Dartmouth, AIDS Awareness Week became AIDS Awareness Month, Conant Sloane says. This month the school has hosted speakers from the medical community and set up displays about the disease and about safer sex.
The health services have also made available safer sex kits containing informative booklets, a rubber dam, lubricant and a condom. During the rest of the year, "We make condoms available at no cost and those are going like hotcakes," she adds.
Several universities, including Tufts, MIT, and Wellesley, have installed condom vending machines in the dormitories, a move that community members says provoked little controversy.
Many universities have created special policies to deal with the AIDS issue.
At UMass., the official policy stresses "noninterference," Kraft says. Anyone with AIDS will be allowed to live and work on campus as long as health permits.
A similar policy is being implemented at Columbia, where Lehecka says, "the basic policy we have is to take things on a case by case basis. No one here is going to lose a job [if they have AIDS]."
At Brigham Young University, where students must sign an honor code which prohibits pre-marital sex, administrators are in the process of forming a policy which will stress education and empathy, says Bruce H. Willey, director of BYU's Health Service.
"I think [the AIDS scare] has increased homophobia that people have because the majority of students see it as a gay disease," Orcutt says.