Starting Local, Thinking Global: Students Host AIDS Summit

Two representatives from Willamette University's chapter of the Student Global AIDS Campaign quickly discovered a problem last spring when they attended the organization's national conference in Washington, D.C.: They didn't meet any college students there from the West Coast.

They were alarmed by the lack of involvement from their region, and though the Willamette group had just formed, the members' commitment to social justice made them realize that being the only Pacific Northwest university chapter was something they needed to change -- especially as AIDS continues to take an enormous toll worldwide, killing 8,200 people every day.

To build momentum among Pacific Northwest high schools, colleges and universities, the students are hosting a regional summit Dec. 1 from 1 to 8 p.m. at Willamette in honor of World AIDS Day. They have secured a visit by Adam Taylor, a well-known Washington, D.C.-based social justice activist who co-founded the Student Global AIDS Campaign while a student at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The event also will include dance-a-thon from 8 p.m. to midnight to raise money for Partners in Health, a global health organization with a proven track record of preventing the spread of HIV and delivering life-saving health care to those in need.

"We want to spread this movement to the rest of the Pacific Northwest," said Sarah Zerzan, a junior biochemistry major. "We're one of the only groups in the West, and that's a problem. We want to make Willamette a leader on this issue."

Currently only one other Pacific Northwest chapter exists, at Olympia High School in Washington. The Willamette group members see their event as a way for students to learn how they can start a chapter and work together to address the problem. They plan to bring in speakers from groups such as disaster relief organization MercyCorps, Oregon Health & Science University, Cascade AIDS Project and Jubilee USA Network, an alliance working toward debt cancellation for impoverished countries.

The Student Global AIDS Campaign is a national grassroots movement, the largest student network committed to ending the HIV and AIDS crisis worldwide. The fledgling Willamette group already has a national leader in Will Nevius, a sophomore politics major who is a member of the campaign's national steering committee, a group of 11 students who plan and implement the organization's nationwide advocacy efforts.

The Willamette students also have a nationally recognized global AIDS expert, Joyce Millen, as their faculty mentor. Millen, an assistant professor of anthropology at Willamette, is the former director of the Institute for Health and Social Justice at Harvard Medical School. She co-edited and authored the critically acclaimed book "Dying for Growth: Global Inequality and the Health of the Poor," and she co-authored "Global AIDS: Myths and Facts," a guidebook to help students fight the pandemic.

Nevius said the organization wants young people to realize that AIDS is a different issue globally than it is in the U.S., with different factors contributing to the spread of the disease in other countries. To mobilize Willamette students, chapter members made presentations in residence halls, held a campus rally and used a campus showing of the film "Rent" as a chance to discuss differences between AIDS treatment in the U.S. and other countries. They also got more than 60 students to participate in an AIDS awareness walk in Portland in September.

They know there is not much time to attract people to their summit Dec. 1, but they think they can tap into the youthful idealism of students everywhere to build a movement that goes far beyond one event.

"University students have to understand the role we play on a national scale," Nevius said. "We do have a voice and the power to prompt change."

For information about the summit at Willamette, including how to register, go to For more on the national Student Global AIDS Campaign, visit

Please Note: The above press release has been updated. The original time listed for this event was from 1 to 6 p.m. and the dance-a-thon from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. the following morning. The event is now scheduled for 1 to 8 p.m. and the dance-a-thon will end at midnight. (November 13, 2006)