When Rackham student Christina Hajj started her Peace Corps project in southwest China in 2009, she was confident that the group of high school girls she was working with would be excited about increasing the awareness of HIV and AIDS. To Hajj’s surprise, the girls refused to participate.

Hajj said the 30 girls later told her that HIV or AIDS are “not a problem for China — let’s not talk about it.”

Returning members of the Peace Corps marked the 23rd annual World AIDS Day — held every Dec. 1 — by sharing their experiences educating communities about the deadly disease at a forum on campus yesterday.

Last year, the Peace Corps sent 4,000 volunteers around the world to help people adopt healthy behaviors and assist communities in mitigating the effects of HIV and AIDS. Even if their projects weren’t health-related, 90 percent of the volunteers worked on HIV and AIDS education. AIDS affects 33 million people worldwide, and 2 million people die of AIDS every year according to a United Nations report.

Hajj, a graduate student in the Ford School of Public Policy, said the virus and disease are not openly discussed in China, so she had to spend nearly two years building rapport within the community before people would speak with her about them.

“The girls really appreciated it afterwards,” Hajj said. “They couldn’t believe that somebody was so open to talk about it.”

Rackham student Elizabeth Renckens said she encountered a similar stigma toward discussing the disease in the western African nation of Togo, where she was stationed from 2006 to 2008. While people were open to talking about HIV and AIDS as a general problem, she said there is a stigma in Togo concerning individuals who are affected by it. As a result, people with HIV don’t seek the treatment they need.

“Coming out and saying that you have HIV is extremely uncommon, which also means getting treatment for it becomes extremely difficult,” Renckens said. “And this also perpetuates the disease because then people don’t take the precautions they need to be taking to have safer sexual relationships.”

Spreading information about HIV and AIDS in Togo was another problem the volunteers faced. To educate people, Renckens participated in AIDS Ride, in which volunteers rode bikes to rural and remote villages over a five-day period. During this time, the volunteers led education sessions about HIV by performing skits and lectures for residents.

Like Hajj, Rackham student Scott Burgess, a University Peace Corps coordinator, worked with schools to increase HIV and AIDS education. During his service in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009, Burgess traveled the country with a group of 40 high school students and spoke on radio shows about health and sex education.

Burgess said in an interview at yesterday’s event that schools in Paraguay don’t teach students to have safe sex. Through his project, he integrated sex education into the curriculum.

“They didn’t have any sex ed in the middle schools or high schools whatsoever,” Burgess said. “If kids got any sort of talk like that it was informal or in the family.”

The purpose of Burgess’s project was to start a dialogue among the high school students to promote HIV and AIDS awareness.

“Students really learn a lot better from other students,” Burgess said. “It’s really hard to hear that from people like teachers or talking with family.”

School of Public Health student Theresa Dreyer said she went to yesterday’s presentation because she is interested in volunteering for the Peace Corps and working internationally in the health field. A position in the Peace Corps may be easier to obtain than a job in health care, she added.

“Any entry-level position that you have is going to have 200 applicants for the same position; it’s highly competitive,” Dreyer said. “Peace Corps will take you without five to 10 years of work experience, which most people ask for.”

Also in attendance at yesterday’s event, School of Public Health student Linda Schultz said she has worked in Japan, but would like to apply her experience working in health clinics in a developing country.

“I’d be willing to go anywhere,” Schultz said. “You should be taking your skills and applying it to where it’s needed.”

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