The University of the Virgin Islands has been awarded an $85,000 grant to expand a student-led educational campaign that seeks to increase awareness of substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis prevention among the college-aged.
The grant by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) will allow university officials and students of the three-year old program to incorporate new resources and techniques into an educational campaign that has already reached more than 2,000 people.
"We want this university and community to know that the HIV virus is a reality...," said Dr. Doris Battiste, Associate Campus Administrator for Student Affairs on the St. Thomas campus. "We need to know how to protect ourselves."
In conjunction with World AIDS Day, this Monday, Dec. 1, students on the St. Thomas and St. Croix campuses gave away red ribbons, candy kisses and prevention information.
The education and prevention campaign, which was started in 2005, allows student volunteers known as Student Peer Educators (SPEs) to receive training from experts in the fields of medicine and substance abuse. They then pass that information onto their peers in a series of lectures and discussions in classrooms and dormitories. Currently there are 34 SPEs, students who are trying to make a difference in their classmates' lives. The students receive a stipend for participating in the campaign.
The student presentations, which are targeted at freshmen and students in life skills and psychology classes, take various forms and feature a question and answer period. Topics include a variety of issues, including alcoholism, drug abuse (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) and its consequences, HIV/AIDS prevention and the relationship between Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS.
The SPEs also provide presentations to community neighborhood groups and to on-campus summer programs such as Upward Bound, the Summer Institute for Future Global Leaders, and the business and science summer enrichment programs. Each student and/or participant completes a pre- and post-presentation survey that allows evaluators to determine how much they knew before and after the presentations.
In addition, the educational campaign engages peer educators in active outreach throughout the school year, conducting HIV testing on campuses in February (in conjunction with Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day), in April (during Carnival) and in June (for National HIV Testing Day).
The campaign has been warmly greeted by students who seem hungry for the information. "It really makes a difference," said Rhashaunda Charles, a UVI junior who speaks to nearly 400 students each school year. "We spread education and dispel myths. There is lots of misinformation."
Indeed, one student survey found that more than 90 percent of students wanted more information on condom usage and how to discuss the virus and disease with medical professionals. Also, very little was known about hepatitis.
Like many other SPEs, Charles said she decided to become a Student Peer Educator after hearing one of the classroom educational lectures on HIV/AIDS. The presentation taught her "a few new things" about the virus and disease she didn't know, including the difference that exists between the HIV virus and AIDS the disease.
"I didn't realize that there were people who had HIV but may live 10 years or longer without ever getting AIDS," Charles said. "I learned something right away."
In the upcoming year, the program expects to fully implement its strategic prevention framework using evidence-based interventions, which have shown significant effects in eliminating or reducing sex-or drug-related behaviors, reducing the rate of new HIV/STD infections, and increasing HIV-protective behaviors.
For additional information on the Student Peer Educators campaign please contact Dr. Doris Battiste at (340) 693-1121.