February 27, 2009 — For many students at UNC, the “AIDS course” has become much more than just another course on the way to graduation; rather, it is a classroom experience which dramatically changes their personal and professional outlook on the world.
“AIDS: Principles, Practices, and Politics” is a one hour credit course designed to illuminate the “complexity and multi-dimensionality of the evolving phenomenon known as AIDS as a paradigm for the relationship between disease, society and public policy.” Every Tuesday evening, students gather for lectures from top leaders in the field, lively patient panel discussions, documentary viewings and on occasion an interactive classroom activity. This course is a rare case in which students come to “learn for learning’s sake,” stated Dr. Ron Strauss, one of the cofounders of the AIDS course at UNC. “It is not about the grade, it is not about competing with other students. The course is just about learning more about HIV/AIDS, and it is a fascinating course.”
Since 2002, class enrollment for the AIDS course has quadrupled in size (over 400 students enrolled this semester). Individuals from all walks of life attend the AIDS course, a testimony to the timely content and excellent reputation of this unique public education opportunity. The classroom consists of undergraduate, graduate and professional students at UNC, including representatives from the schools of dentistry, public health, law, nursing, pharmacy, medicine and many more. In addition to the myriad of individuals from academia, individuals from state government and the media also attend the weekly classes. “The whole purpose is to reach out to the community, not just to UNC students,” said co-course director Dr. Charles van der Horst. “Some people take the course for continuing education, and some will just audit the course. We also have lots of parents and children come in and listen.”
According to the 2008 student evaluations, the AIDS course has a tremendous impact on the students and UNC community. For almost one third of individuals who completed a course evaluation last semester, just taking the AIDS course actually changed their own HIV risk behaviors. Twenty-two percent of students changed their sexual behaviors, and two thirds of the class emerged feeling more comfortable talking with potential or actual sex partners about condoms and STDs. In fact, nearly 20% of students obtained an HIV test themselves after taking this course. In addition, the AIDS course had an equally large effect on attitude change and professional decision-making. For example, a whopping 76% of the AIDS course participants reported that the course changed their attitudes about people with HIV. Additionally, two thirds of people in the AIDS course claimed that the course changed how they aim to conduct their career. For almost 20% of people, their actual career plans changed as a result of the AIDS course.
Dr. Ron Strauss is pleased when he hears about the powerful impact that the AIDS course has had on his former students. “The two things that are most gratifying to me are that people from all walks of occupational life have a very solid background in HIV/AIDS. Our students become lawyers, teachers, physicians– you name it. They enter their respective occupational fields with more knowledge about HIV, and that is a huge plus. Another big plus for me is going to the International AIDS Conference every other year and meeting at least a dozen people at the meeting who’ve taken the course and are now working in HIV. Their careers have been touched by the course, and I think that is really wonderful.”
Given the remarkable success of the AIDS course at UNC over the past two decades, the course is now being video-recorded and launched to distance education settings such as North Carolina Central University (NCCU). “We’re amplifying the impact beyond the student experience of the course at Carolina to the broader community,” commented Dr. Strauss, who is also the Executive Associate Provost of UNC-Chapel Hill. Dr. David Jolly, a long-time guest lecturer for the AIDS course and Associate Professor in the Department of Public Health Education at NCCU, now offers the AIDS course to a group of 16-18 students at NCCU. “It is going really well,” said Dr. Jolly, “I am very pleased with students’ level of engagement with course material, which can be quite challenging – sometimes intellectually, sometimes personally. This course feels like a true partnership and I really appreciate the support from UNC.” In addition to distance education, the AIDS course content is also used in training for case managers at the State Health Department as well as for project field workers through Family Health International.
The AIDS course at UNC is a truly exemplary model of public health education that advances awareness and knowledge of HIV/ AIDS at UNC and beyond. “This course has been going for 22 years,” commented Dr. van der Horst, “and we are able to reach a huge number of people. Over the years, we have reached thousands of people.” The recent initiative to provide distance education and training opportunities is yet another step for the advancement of public education about HIV/AIDS. “I think that people should never be satisfied with what they think they might know about HIV/AIDS,” commented Hanna Ali (current student in the AIDS course and psychology major at UNC), “because there is always something new to learn.”
– Carlye Kincaid (First published in the February 2009 issue of the CFAR newsletter)