It was my pleasure to interview Yi-Min Chun recently, a young person whose interests lie in global health but who has chosen, for now, to Act locally by making her university campus more aware of HIV in innovative and eye-catching ways. For this she has been recognized by an award from OCIC.
Not unexpectedly, she's smart as a whip.
Ontario Council for International Cooperation (OCIC)'s Global Changemaker Awards are celebrated during International Development Week each year to honour outstanding youth who have demonstrated active engagement with communities and civil society organizations in the promotion of international cooperation and social justice.
While Yi-Min has a keen interest in the global epidemic, and in how it is panning out in Malawi in particular, she has also been active on the home front. Says OCIC “In 2008 she became involved with the University of Toronto chapter of Dignitas International, a medical humanitarian organization dedicated to improving access to treatment and quality of care for people with HIV/AIDS and related diseases. Since then Yi-Min has moved from being the sole volunteer with just $15 in the bank, to mobilizing peers and other students to take action on HIV/AIDS.
As President of her school’s chapter Yi-Min realized that engaging students on HIV/AIDS prevention wasn’t going to happen just by handing out pamphlets. Instead, she sought to stimulate the student body by designing a 750-condom interactive art installation for World AIDS Day 2012.”
We spoke to Yi-Min Chun about her condom art as well as the reaction it has received, both in 2012 and 2013 when she expanded the concept from one to three installations in different locations, and the perception of HIV in the student body she has been striving to influence.
Bob Leahy: You called it the condom art installation. Tell me about the background to that.
Yi-Min Chun: Well, I noticed that students, especially in Ontari,o are heavily impacted by HIV and STIs. Student Health Services were really trying to make an effort, to reach out to the student body, but I don’t think it was as effective as they had wanted it .I mean there were so many times I walked by and saw them standing on the corner of the street handing out condoms and I saw students sort of shy away because they felt awkward about taking them. .
So do you think students are interested in hearing or talking about HIV?
I think students are interested in HIV but I think they want to hear it in a different context. There are so many HIV-related organizations on campus and when everyone is doing the same thing, people are tired of hearing the same thing.
Do most students then think of HV as a personal threat to their health?
Most students like to say they practice safer sex but the thing is not all understand how HIV is transmitted and how easily it can be prevented and that’s where education and awareness really needs a lot more emphasis. I want to take the initiative of taking new ways of educating students because I don’t want to sound like parental talk, because that’s not want students want to hear. And I think that’s why I came up with a little more interesting and a little bit more provocative way of educating the student body.
Just one more question on student attitudes then. Do you think students still regard HIV as a gay disease and therefore it doesn’t really concern them unless they are gay?
I don’t think that idea exists very much anymore on campus. The LGBT community has done a very good job of communicating to all of us in that. And it’s nice to see that. The presence of LGBT people on all three campuses has been really great. Very visible and very vocal.
Good, so now we’ve got that context, let’s get back to your condom art installation. Tell me what it looked like and how people interacted with it.
Last year I did it on World AIDS Day but this year I thought we could probably get a better audience by having it the week of Valentine’s Day, and at all three campuses. We spelled the condoms and lube packets around the word "HIV". .
And then people could take them and the word “HIV would disappears?
Exactly, but this year we made it a little bit different by having a hidden message underneath the condoms. Each campus had a different message underneath. Anywhere from “did you know that you can still live a healthy life with HIV treatment?” to “did you know condoms are an effective way of HIV prevention?" I worked with all three campuses and Student Health Services and they were ecstatic to work with us because they realized they weren’t getting as many students as thy liked to take condoms and to know about their services and we worked in collaboration with Dignitas, the Health Centres and also the peer counselling team because they are the ones that are the active students that are going to talk to students about safe sex, early treatment and such.
Tell me about the reaction of the student body; were you able to watch how they were interacting while they were taking condoms?
This year turned out to be extremely successful. Within about 15 minutes of displaying it students starting taking the condoms. The downtown campus ended up having only about 30 condoms left. What was really fantastic was that at the Mississauga campus all the condoms and lubricant packages were gone. .
So the hidden messages were all displayed. .
And at the Scarborough campus all the condoms were gone within the first day and therefore the hidden messages were on display for a whole week.
That's really good. So what's nest Yi-Min? It sounds like you are fairly immersed in the issues surrounding HIV. This is your last year at university. Where do you go from here?
Well, I came from an undergraduate degree that didn’t have any kind of global health component to it, I don’t have any international development work, I’ve always consistently stayed involved with HIV outside my studies as much as I could, been aware of the kind of technology that could be used for HIV/AIDS/ And I think it’s been proved very valuable for me, having that scientific background. I want to take it to the next step further by going to medical school; I’m very interested in bio-design, I’m a hard-core fan off innovation. I really love taking interdisciplinary approaches. I like breaking down barriers. Pursuing a career in medicine especially dealing with bio-design - if you realize you can make a change for one person that means the world to them – if I can even create technology using all the skills and passions that I have – that would be incredible, that’s my dream.
You can read more about Yi-Min here, and be sure to click on the video below.