Despite inclement weather and costly travel expenses, 500 college and high school students attended the first Student Global AIDS Campaign National Conference at GW this weekend.
The conference included various workshops focused on educating students about HIV/AIDS, its global context and how to build chapters at participants’ universities. Several films and documentaries were also screened.
The University was selected to host the event because of its “ideal location,” said freshman Monika Bandyopadhyay, who helped organize the event. The events primarily took place in the Marvin Center, Ross Hall and the Washington Marriott.
“We hope to inspire some people to get involved,” she said. “It’s important to our generation. We’re here to educate, advocate and raise awareness. People want to know how they can do more.”
SGAC, founded in 2001 by students at Harvard University, is the largest grassroots network of AIDS activists in the United States. Touting a motto of “Educate, Organize, Advocate” the SGAC has three fundamental goals: raising funds to fight the epidemic, pressuring major drug corporations to help provide universal access to essential generic medicines and calling on the government to contribute $2.5 billion a year to global AIDS efforts. The efforts focus on debt relief to countries with irrepressible HIV/AIDS problems.
Seniors Emily Selia and Naina Dhingra, who had contacts with students at Harvard University’s chapter, founded GW’s chapter last year. The SGAC currently has about 30 members at the University.
The SGAC provided several noteworthy personalities for its first national event. Speakers included actor and AIDS activist Rupert Everett, Scott Evertz of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and a taped message from U2 singer Bono.
The culmination of the SGAC National Conference will be a lobbying effort at the Capitol Building Monday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Volunteers will drop into representatives’ offices and speak with their staffs about AIDS legislation.
“This conference is about turning knowledge into change,” said Will Prichard, a senior at Harvard University, welcoming representatives from more than 90 colleges and universities at Friday’s session. “It’s about what we do when we leave here.”
Many students who attended said they identified with the organization’s proactive approach.
“We have a chapter in our school and came here to make connections with the National Branch and learn what we can do back home,” said Rob Mealey, a junior at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont.
Bandyopadhyay cited President George W. Bush’s $15 billion AIDS initiative, announced in his January State of the Union address, as an example of an issue the SGAC considers significant.
“We’re concerned with questions like, ‘how should this money be spent?’ We want to see that it isn’t done in a unilateral or bilateral way. We’re here to advocate for those types of political issues,” she said.
The conference was also a forum to share personal experiences. Some of the most moving speakers were those living with the disease, attendees noted.
“These are people living with the disease every day. They remind us why we’re here,” said Paulina Abaunza, a GW freshman who attended the conference.
“Do I look like a typical person with HIV?” Jess Eason of Wellesley College asked audience members before a special presentation by Artists for a New South Africa Friday night. “But my face is the face of this disease. And that’s part of this fight.”
Eason is the founder of a Boston support group of HIV-positive women in their 20s.
Kerry Heath, a 14-year-old D.C. native, took the podium and declared that she too was living with the disease.
“I don’t feel bad about being HIV positive,” she said. “I could have a disease that isn’t treatable at all.”
For the rest of the academic year, SGAC will focus mostly on legislative matters.
“Preparing for this event has been our main focus for most of this year,” said sophomore Beth Pellettierri, SGAC’s director and coordinator. “What we do in the future is going to depend upon where (members) want to take it.”