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Students combat AIDS in Africa

CASSIE TOMLIN/Arizona Daily Wildcat
Molecular and cellular biology junior Kyle Tiemeier shows molecular and cellular biology sophomore Rachelle Bond one of the Frisbees he distributed in Tanzania last summer with Students for International Change.
By Mitra Taj
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Monday, October 25, 2004
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Students who recently spent time in Tanzania promoting AIDS awareness are recruiting volunteers to join the ranks of students battling "one of the biggest problems in the world."

Volunteers with Students for International Change have tested more than 1,000 people for HIV and have provided AIDS-related education for more than 4,000 people in the rural suburbs of Arusha, Tanzania, since 2002, said Sedona Sweeney, a sophomore majoring in English.

The student-run non-governmental organization works to reduce the spread of HIV in Tanzania.

Students who have volunteered with SIC said their experiences teaching rural Tanzanians about AIDS ended up learning a lot from the experience.

"It's really hard to put it into words, but it's been a life-changing experience for everyone involved," said Kyle Tiemeier, a molecular and cellular biology junior and SIC coordinator.

Tiemeier said before volunteering for SIC, he planned on working as a physician in the United States. But after two years of volunteering in Tanzania, he's switched career paths to international development.

At an informational meeting Oct. 18 for students interested in volunteering with SIC, coordinators spoke about their experiences in Tanzania and how students can get involved in upcoming trips.

Groups of about 16 to 22 student volunteers will be heading to Tanzania next summer and fall, where they'll serve as AIDS educators, learn Swahili and probably come back a changed person, the coordinators said.

Sweeney said one out of five Tanzanians is infected with HIV. On the entire African continent, Sweeny said there are about 30 million people infected with HIV and 14.5 million AIDS orphans.

AIDS is detrimental to African countries not just because of the many lives lost but because the depletion of the youngest, most able population hurts their economies, Sweeney said.

"It's driving Africa into a sort of downward spiral," she said.

Because the fall trip costs more than the summer trip, takes longer and would mean a semester off from school, Sweeney said students more dedicated to the cause are likely to volunteer in the fall.

Upon arrival, volunteers go through a two-week orientation with other SIC volunteers and their Tanzanian counterparts. Then, most volunteers will join a host family while others, who find the cultural immersion "overwhelming," might opt to stay in a hostel.

But the coordinators said living with native Tanzanians is an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.

"It's the best way to get into the culture," said Tiemeier.

Tiemeier said every trip he's taken to Tanzania, he's watched a timid pack of volunteers turn into individuals comfortable in their surroundings who leave having made lifelong Tanzanian friends.

Applications will be available mid-November and are due Jan. 12, Sweeney said.

If students are selected for interviews and are later accepted, they'll go through training during the spring to prepare them to answer tough questions about AIDS and to deal with unfamiliar situations.

"We really prepare you so that you don't feel like a bunch of white people going in there telling people what to do," said Tiemeier.

SIC coordinators encouraged volunteers to take Swahili classes in the spring semester through the Critical Languages Program at the UA.

Students joining the summer group pay $1,900 and fall volunteers pay $2,400 in addition to their plane tickets.

SIC coordinators said the costs will include all activities in Tanzania, such as Swahili classes and special projects volunteers come up with.

Last summer, Becca Furst, an international studies sophomore and SIC campus coordinator, said she used the money set aside for special projects to set up extra teaching sites in areas where street vendors worked.

A group of volunteers also organized a "community day" featuring HIV testing, educational games and music from a sound system Furst said most children had never heard before.

"If you show initiative, there's so much you can do to help," Tiemeier said.

Sweeney said SIC fundraising during the spring semester will help students pay for some, if not all, of the trip.

"It's ideal," said Kelly Snipes, a freshman majoring in Spanish, who went to the informational meeting. "I know nothing about AIDS, but I'm willing to learn."

Snipes, who said she had been considering studying abroad in Brazil, said going to Tanzania in the summer appeals more to her because she would be helping others as well as herself.

"It seems like something more positive I can do with my time," she said.

Snipes said she's concerned with the cost of the trip and isn't sure whether or not she'll stay with a host family.

"It's exciting because it's complete immersion into the culture, but it's also scary because it's complete immersion," Snipes said.

Tiemeier said the excitement of being in a different culture is one of the reasons he's going to continue working in Tanzania after he graduates: researching sites for potential expansion of SIC programs.

"It's about 180 degrees from everything here," Tiemeier said. "And I loved it for that."

SIC was launched by UA student Tina Wu and a UCLA student two years ago. Since then, Sweeney said the organization has doubled in size and now recruits from the UA, UCLA, Stanford, ASU and NAU.

Students interested in more information can go to a meeting tomorrow at 1 p.m. in the Copper room, Student Union Memorial Center.

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