Students address challenges, heartaches of HIV/AIDS through service-learning projects

Today is World AIDS Day, a day to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS, its prevention and treatment. As of this semester, more than 1,000 students at the University of St. Thomas have engaged in service-learning projects that have in some way addressed the challenges and heartache of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

In 2004, Dr. Kim Vrudny, associate professor of theology, sought to involve her students in a service-learning project in her Theology of Beauty course to educate them about effective, compassionate and sustainable responses to this medical and cultural crisis.

Since then, other UST faculty and their students have developed service-learning projects with community organizations engaged in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, including Open Arms of Minnesota, which delivers meals to those with the disease, and Clare Housing, which provides affordable living and compassionate care to those living with HIV/AIDS.

Sixteen faculty members in disciplines as diverse as art history, biology, business, communication and journalism, health and human performance, justice and peace studies, music, philosophy, political science, psychology, sociology, and theology, have developed projects in collaboration with these organizations to provide students with an opportunity to apply their coursework to real community needs.

Students have delivered meals tailored to meet the nutritional needs of individuals living with serious and life-threatening diseases, conducted research, produced videos, prepared surveys, assembled food safety kits, raised funds, sponsored food drives, learned about skills needed to influence public policy, visited and supported people living with HIV/AIDS, and conducted oral histories of volunteers.

In 2008, the program offered its first overseas service-learning opportunity when 12 students traveled with Vrudny and Rob Strusinski, director of UST’s Liturgical Choir, to Guguletu and Cape Town, South Africa, to learn from local leaders there responding to the epidemic and to deliver food parcels in an area with high infection rates. Vrudny will serve as the site contact for a VISION trip to Guguletu in January 2010.

Vrudny also is working on a sabbatical project in Africa and Asia, titled “30 Years/30 Lives,” documenting through photographs 30 years into the pandemic of 30 people impacted by HIV/AIDS and organizations devoted to their care. The project aspires to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in order to challenge commonly held assumptions about who is affected and to draw on the rich Christian tradition to encourage a just and compassionate response to what has been called the worst human rights disaster in history.

Having already killed 25 million people globally, HIV/AIDS affects the lives of another 33 million people still living. Ninety-six percent of those with HIV/AIDS live in countries with few resources to effectively deal with this disease, leaving the majority of those living with the virus without access to life-saving treatments.

Moreover, HIV/AIDS is a disease of young people: Half of the 5 million new infections each year occur among people between the ages of 15 and 24. The disease also leaves in its wake millions of orphans. (See the United Nations' HIV/AIDS Web site.)

HIV/AIDS is not just a concern outside the United States. In Minnesota alone, a new case is reported every 27 hours, and experts estimate that approximately 2,500 Minnesotans are living with HIV but do not know they are infected, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Dr. Tonia Bock, College of Arts and Sciences, Psychology, is serving as director for the HIV/AIDS service-learning initiatives. For more information, contact Bock, (651) 962-5038, or Barb Baker, program manager for service-learning, (651) 962-5380.