Hands flew up around the Perry Paige auditorium on Wednesday night as two students stood at the front of the room mumbling and uncomfortably shifting back and forth, avoiding the microphone. The question: What does HIV stand for? After an incorrect answer and a shrug followed by, “I don’t know,” third year Pharmacy student from Miami and chair of the event Stephen Okon turned the question to the audience.
The kick-off was the start of a month-long campaign titled “Sexpectations.” The series is the collaborative effort of organizations Students Against the Spread of HIV/AIDS (SASHA) and other FAMU, Florida State University and Tallahassee Community College organizations all encouraging students to get tested and practice safer sexual practices.
“Students need to listen to the messages that we try to provide them on a consistent basis to dispel all of those myths and misunderstandings they have about AIDS,” Director of Counseling Services and Associate Professor in the College of Education, Dr. Yolanda K.H. Bogan, said. “The more they know we’re hoping the more responsible they will be.”
Participants were on campus throughout the day distributing free buttons, t-shirts, bookmarks and wristbands were dispersed within the auditorium.
Students filled the chairs and lined the walls of Perry Paige as an AIDS-inspired poem was delivered by a member of Voices poetry group, segueing into the night’s main event with speaker Marvelyn Brown.
Brown, a renowned AIDS activist and bestselling author, has spoken around the country, sharing her story. She has been featured on shows including The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Tyra Banks Show, The Tom Joyner Morning Show and CNN’s Documentary “Black in America” with Soledad O’Brien.
The packed room was completely still as Brown candidly recalled the day she found out she was HIV positive. After lying in the hospital with a fever of 106 degrees and being diagnosed with pneumonia, Brown was informed that she was also positive. Brown marks it as a day that changed the course of her entire life.
“I thought that [Marvelyn Brown] was real, informative, entertaining…she was the one that made the event,” said Standrell Nicholson, a third year computer science student from Jacksonville. “I’m now more concerned about how I go about protecting myself, especially being sexually active and in a relationship.”
She joked about the stigma that accompanies the disease, and how people often assume that HIV is a disease contracted through promiscuity.
“People act as if you go to this person to get the H, this person to get the I and this person to get the V,” Brown said.
Brown asserts, however, that the stigma she’s seen and received since being diagnosed is the most difficult aspect of living with the disease.
“The stigma contributes to the silence and the ignorance that surrounds this virus,” Brown said. “Even though I take medications that I get heavy side effects from, I would say the stigma is a lot more hurtful and painful than that medication could ever be.”
Through her honest humor lies a strong message: AIDS knows no age, gender or race. Brown spoke of her “Prince Charming,” a handsome boyfriend she loved and trusted, who infected her with the disease. She spoke with no regret or bitterness, but with gratefulness.
“The changes I’ve seen in myself have been remarkable,” Brown said. “I’m focused. I have a self-love and a self-awareness that I didn’t have before…yes, I have an Emmy and an autobiography, but I really feel that the reason I do this is for the people who are just like me.”
Brown commended the focus of the campaign, observing that it was severely needed, particularly on FAMU’s campus.
“I think the campaign is definitely needed here, just by hearing some of the questions,” Brown said. Even in the beginning when students were asked what HIV was and they didn’t have a clue, didn’t even know the acronym. Just things like that; it’s good to see something going on, something positive, something that could help the lack of education.”