Back to School . . . ?

More and More HIV-Positive People Are Seeing Education as the Key to Their Future

The days of education viewed as "reading, writing and 'rithmetic" have long since gone. Today, people go to school for various reasons: career preparation or enhancement; self- improvement; completion of degrees and diplomas abandoned in earlier times. Those living with HIV are no exception. To the contrary, many are pursuing educational goals that are now feasible and, in some cases, necessary for the continuation of a full, productive life.

Meet Tammy, a 40-year-old single parent. Eight years ago she tested positive; she believes that she was infected with HIV a considerable time before that. Tammy's son is 11, and although he is negative, she feels that she contracted HIV prior to her pregnancy. She had been with her husband for thirteen years, sexually monogamous, and he is also negative; thus she believes that her status predates this relationship and the birth of her son. Tammy learned of being positive on a fluke: her husband had contracted a sexually transmitted disease, and as a result she went for a VD screening. The results were more than she'd bargained for. Upon learning that she had contracted HIV, she realized that she must have done so sexually, since she'd never used intravenous drugs.

"Devastating," is the succinct way she describes it. Tammy went on a search for the four partners she'd had prior to her marriage; she found two of them, and both claimed to be negative. She abandoned the effort as she came to realize that it wasn't important to know who had infected her. Rather, what mattered was what she would do with her life.

Initially, she felt betrayed and debilitated, and that all her energy was drained. Her marriage dissolved, and she found herself in need of work. Tammy had an associate's degree in business administration, with a concentration in accounting, and had attained an impressive 3.9 grade point average in her earlier studies. However, she did not choose to continue with business administration. As she learned to accept and cope with the issues surrounding HIV, they became a central focus in her life, particularly issues pertaining to women.

Today, Tammy is going to school and registered in two programs. First, she is studying behavioral sciences, with a focus on health management. This is a certificate program, culminating in a state-administered exam with written, oral, and case-study components. Also, she's registered in the Cutrina Hazlett Training Program, sponsored by the HIV Law Project. This program focuses on women who are HIV-positive, and teaches advocacy, women's rights, health care, writing grants, effective public speaking and dealing with legislators. It is nine months in duration, and the goal is to create strong leadership skills.

On completion of her studies, Tammy's desire is to work anywhere within the HIV community. Ideally she wants to be a trainer and have an impact on people, teaching them how to care for themselves mentally and physically, and how to work within the bureaucracy. When I asked how she felt about continuing her education, and the prospect of a satisfying career change, Tammy said, "I used to believe that HIV was the end of me, but I've learned that just because you have HIV doesn't mean you're dead. When you stumble, you pick yourself up and move on, so I consider HIV just a stumble. I picked myself up and said, ‘Get out of the way, HIV, this is not the end.’ I can still choose my dreams and go after them."

Currently Tammy is in a non-live-in relationship, and she and her partner use all known precautions for sex. "He's negative, and I want to keep him that way," says Tammy. "He has a daughter, and I have a son, so we've agreed that we don't want more children. Some people I know take the chance, and think the baby will seroconvert. That happens sometimes, but not always; I don't think it's fair."

A fervent believer in safer sex, Tammy described one of her chief roles as an advocate. "I've done a lot of volunteer work, and I have friends who are living with HIV, and you'd be surprised at how many don't have safe sex," she says. "I try to counsel them on how important it is, and not be judgmental. In a professional capacity, that's easier than with friends; with a client, I just tell them why it’s so important, but with a friend I talk about the moral issues. I do my best to meet people where they're at."

From Medical Patient to Registered Medical Assistant

Another woman living with HIV and returning to school is Karen. She's thirty-three years old, and was last in school at a community college twelve years ago. Currently, Karen teaches life skills to people with learning disabilities. Her clients range from the mildly to severely retarded.

Karen learned of her HIV status when she was applying to the U.S. Army in 1984. She was thoroughly shocked when the results of her medical showed her to be positive at only age 17. "I had raging hormones when I was a young teenager," she says. "All I knew was I had to do something about it, and so I went after the boy next door. Too bad nobody told me it was okay to go after the girl next door, which is what I would have preferred; if I'd have known that then, maybe I wouldn't be in this situation today."

For years she ignored the diagnosis and continued life as usual. But in 1993, she wasn't feeling well and went for a medical exam. "My T-cells were down to four," she said. It was time to start addressing the issue. Initially, Karen went on AZT, but had a bad reaction. After experimenting with different and improved drug therapies, her doctors found a combination that worked. Today she is feeling healthy and strong.

Recently, Karen felt inspired to make a career change. She says, "After dealing with the welfare system myself, I wanted to help revamp it. The last thing a person with HIV needs is stress, and believe me, it's stressful to deal with welfare." Initially Karen decided to work in advocacy, and considered moving to Washington to do so. However, she's always been fascinated with the human body, and felt that working in the medical field would be interesting also.

Confused about what to do, Karen consulted Gay Men's Health Crisis, and learned about the Office of Vocational and Education Studies for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID). This is a governmental agency that provides screening, educational and placement counseling. Initially, VESID registers applicants in a three-week placement program at a testing agency. When I asked Karen why the testing process took so long, she said "They're really looking to see if you have structure in your life. At the start, they just want to know you can show up every day, on time. I couldn't wait to go. I need structure. In the beginning, I wanted to learn medical billing. In that field, you can work independently from home once you’ve got experience and some people are making thirty to forty dollars an hour. After I was exposed to all the possibilities the testing agency offered, though, I wanted to study everything."

Ultimately, she settled on becoming a medical assistant. This is a program that requires state certification, and the course is eight-months long. The first six months consist of classroom instruction, while the last two are a hands-on internship. In total, Karen will have to put in 900 hours before she can take her certification test. She reviewed three schools that offered the program before making her choice. She has not, however, told her school that she's positive. "HIV is a part of my life, but not my whole life," she says. "There was no need for the school to know." Karen applied for a Pell Grant, offered by the City of New York for persons below a certain income level, while the rest of her tuition is picked up by VESID.

Karen has been in the program for two months. Upon graduation and passing of her exams, Karen will be a Registered Medical Assistant, and can work in a private doctor's office or in a clinic. The type of work she'll do spans both administrative and medical responsibilities: administering x-rays and EKGs; drawing blood and doing lab work-ups; and also doing the medical billing she'd initially wanted to learn. Her goals right now are clear: to start a new career that will be both fulfilling, and also financially rewarding. Karen says, "I want to be there for young people. When a fifteen year old gets diagnosed, I want to tell them to come back for treatment and deal with it, because there's still life out there."

The Show Goes On: Returning to Theater Studies

Another story of self-exploration that led to the classroom belongs to Jeffrey. He's 43 years old, gay, and in a committed relationship. Jeffrey dropped out of college originally in 1977; he had been a fine arts major, specializing in theater studies. Due to early successes in obtaining roles, he felt that he didn't need a degree to get his career moving. Jeffrey got enough parts so that, supplemented with odd jobs, he was able to sustain himself.

But by 1988, acting opportunities were slowing down, and Jeffrey wanted a more stable source of income. He began taking jobs producing special events, since the work had an aspect of theater and the money was good. In 1989, he broke off a 12-year relationship and threw himself into his work, now producing large parties. Jeffrey also threw himself into the social aspect of his work. One night, when a dancer didn't show up for an event, he found himself dancing naked on the bar. That was a turning point; he decided that he needed to draw back from the party circuit, professionally and personally. Shortly afterward, Jeffrey caught the flu and couldn't seem to shake it. On the advice of his doctor, he took an HIV test and came up positive. "I wasn't freaked out," he says. "I joined a Body Positive support group and did all the right things. I guess I was repressing a lot at the time."

Still without a steady job, Jeffrey gained employment at a major department store, again doing special promotions. He now had a steady income, and was promoted a number of times in the next seven years. In the summer of 1997, Jeffrey's doctor changed his medications and for the first time, he had a bad reaction. "There were periods of the day when I could feel all my energy drain from me, and wherever I was, I had to rest for an hour or so," he says. His job was extremely busy and kept him stressed much of the time, and he began to question whether he wanted to remain there. His doctor suggested the possibility of going on disability, but Jeffrey's initial reaction was negative; he felt as if it would be the next-to-last step in his life. The doctor suggested that Jeffrey either learn to manage the tension and busy schedule of his job, or speak with a therapist about the positive aspects of disability. He did the latter and, after three sessions, decided he didn't want to continue working. The therapist counseled him to treat disability as an opportunity to make changes and achieve desired life goals.

In discussing this decision with another therapist who specializes in HIV-related disability, the subject of returning to school arose. Jeffrey was referred to a CUNY professor and, upon discussion of his past credits, was surprised to learn that most of them could be transferred. He decided to take the plunge. At age 40, Jeffrey carefully researched the degree programs in theater offered by various branches of CUNY and ultimately chose Hunter College. CUNY was Jeffrey's choice not only because he'd consulted with a professor there, but also because, like Karen, he'd gone to VESID for counseling and found that they granted tuition assistance for state and city schools. He also discovered the CUNY Baccalaureate Program, for students returning to school. Requirements are completion of sixty credits with a 2.5 average. He was able to design his own curriculum, and he also receives financial aid through this program. Between VESID and CUNY, most of his educational costs are covered.

Today, Jeffrey is close to attaining his Bachelor's Degree, and he plans to continue immediately for a master's in theater, with a specialization in teaching. He is maintaining a 3.9 grade point average, having received only one "B" in his time as a student. When he'd been an undergraduate twenty years prior, his average was 2.7.

The path hasn't always been easy. When he started school in the fall of 1997, he was dealing with the emotional issues of being on disability; also, he was just beginning to tolerate his medications, so he also had physical problems. "Keeping up my energies, both mental and physical, is still the biggest challenge," Jeffrey says. "I've let some of my instructors know that I'm HIV positive, not for special treatment but just so they understand certain situations."

I asked Jeffrey what his goals were. "I want to teach acting or directing on either the high school or college level," he says. "I was inspired by my partner who is a dedicated teacher and already the departmental head of music education within his school district. What's surprising, though, is that the acting bug has re-surfaced during my studies. I did a show at Hunter, a musical theater piece for children, and then found myself doing another in which I played three roles, all middle-aged or older. I never played ‘older’ when I was first acting, and I found it exciting."

Jeffrey feels that he has many possibilities to choose from. "The thing against acting full-time is that it takes a lot of energy; also, it's difficult for actors to get health insurance. But if I teach, I'll have the summers off and can get involved in summer stock or local theater productions."

Is VESID Right for You?

For anyone who has entertained the thought of returning to school, it seems that the Office of Vocational and Education Studies for Individuals with Disabilities (VESID) is a good place to start. VESID is an office of the New York State Education Department, and each year offers thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities an opportunity to become independent through education, training and employment. It also provides vocational counseling to eligible individuals to prepare them for suitable jobs. VESID can be contacted by telephone at 212-630-2300; they also have a website, Also, if you're a client of GMHC, they sponsor an education program. GMHC is affiliated with the continuing education departments of most colleges in the area; two or three times a year, on a lottery basis, clients can apply for non-credit courses and, if their name is chosen, they can take the desired courses for free. More information can be gained at GMHC's main number, 212-367-1000.

Ronald C.Russo is a free-lance writer in New York City.

Back to the March 2001 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.