A Strong League of People
In a candid interview, The HIV League’s Daniel Szymczyk discusses the role of education in fighting HIV
Text & photos by Alina Oswald
Nowadays, when I chat with young individuals, I’m often amazed by their take on life, by their hope, desire and dedication to make the world a better place. I can’t recall if I was ever that hopeful when I was their age, but I believe that sometimes tackling old problems with fresh ideas might just help us find the solutions we’ve been looking for all along.
Daniel Szymczyk, founder and executive director of The HIV League, is such an inspiring and impressive young individual. He is the embodiment of what we need more of these days—hope, grit, dedication, determination, resilience, as well as a warm smile. Daniel Szymczyk also has a unique approach to fighting HIV—he strongly believes that education empowers people. Hence, his organization, The HIV League, helps provide financial support to individuals living with HIV, in order for them to be able to get that education, get empowered, and achieve their goals.
He, himself, has been empowered by education and guided by mentors in his own life. Szymczyk digs into his pocket and produces a compass. As he shows it to me, he explains that one of his first mentors was his high school photography teacher. She gave him and a few other students compasses, as a symbolic award. “It kind of grew as a symbol for me to always guide myself in the right direction ever since then. It used to be in my car all the time but now it just stays with me wherever I live. I keep it with me because it’s a reminder of [my teacher] as one of my first mentors, and [also of] how much each one of my mentors’ guidance means to me.”
Szymczyk decided to focus on HIV-related issues and start a scholarship—the only national scholarship of its kind—for individuals living with HIV when he, himself, became comfortable living with the virus. As he tells the story, Szymczyk was diagnosed with HIV in the summer of 2013, right before his senior year in college. The twenty-year-old was in New York City at the time, doing an internship.
“The initial reaction to HIV hits you really quickly. For me it was quite intense,” he recalls. In fact, it was so intense that he was in the ICU. “My blood cell counts were really low. My fever was high, 105-106F. I lost twenty to thirty pounds in the first three to four days, and about forty pounds in the first two weeks.” A few days after getting out of the hospital, flying back home to North Carolina, he had to wear a mask.
He continued to feel sick and weak during the first weeks of the new school year, but despite it all, he was determined to push through, and finish college. He graduated from Appalachian State University, in North Carolina, in part because of his resilience and willpower.
“My senior year was my recovery year,” Szymczyk comments, “because [HIV] really did a number on me.” He further explains that in the South having HIV is still considered a death sentence. What individuals are taught and told is that, “basically, if you get HIV, you are dead. [Therefore, receiving an HIV-positive diagnosis] can really do a number on you mentally,” he reiterates.
Szymczyk spent his recovery year working on improving his physical health. He took all sorts of physically challenging classes, like rock climbing, trying to push himself and build up his physical strength. He also worked on his mental strength. He came out about his HIV status immediately to only a few key individuals—his family and a few friends. But it was because of their support that he could regain his mental strength.
“It depends on the people that you surround yourself with,” he says, reemphasizing the importance of this kind of support. He mentions that this peer support was vital in the early years of the epidemic, and it’s been vital, to this day, throughout the decades of HIV. “I have a lot of friends who have been living with HIV or who have friends living with HIV back in the eighties,” he adds. “[Hearing] their stories, I really get a sense of how it was [back then]. It was literally like a war crisis among the queer community and communities of color, and [individuals] really depend[ed] on [peer] support.”
It was this kind of support along with strengthening his physical health that made it possible for Szymczyk to look beyond his diagnosis and consider possibilities in his life. His goal was to run his first long race at the end of his recovery year. Two weeks after he graduated, he moved to New York City. About a year and a half after his diagnosis, he ran his first half-marathon. “I was super proud of myself,” he says.
Szymczyk’s doctors put him on medications right after his diagnosis and he “got to undetectable really quick.” He’s very much aware that those diagnosed at the beginning of the epidemic were not that lucky. He’s also aware that this progress would not be possible, if not for the work of many early HIV and LGBTQ activists. Younger generations of activists “have such positive energy because of the years that the older generations have put into [fighting for] the HIV community,” he comments.
In New York City, Szymczyk worked in a commercial photography studio, while dreaming of breaking into photojournalism. Having a background in nonprofit management, he found out about a nonprofit that had ties to Uganda. And so, he took time off from work and went to Uganda to cover the LGBT scene.
“[In Uganda] I was able to find a few gay activists, but it wasn’t until I went to the city of Gulu that I was able to reach out to Uganda’s main HIV/AIDS organization called TASO, The AIDS Service Organisation,” he says. He was able to follow a TASO HIV medications distribution team across various villages, and got to speak with people living with HIV he met along the way. “And here’s what the crazy part was,” he says. “[At the time] I was on a regimen of three medications. And the medications [TASO] was giving out were exactly [the same meds I was on].”
The medications TASO was distributing came from a pharmaceutical company in Kampala. When visiting Kampala, Szymczyk also stopped by that pharmaceutical company and found out that the brand names of the medications were the same as in the States, but the packaging was Ugandan. “I was seeing the same medications [in Uganda as in the United States],” Szymczyk comments. “It got me thinking, why aren’t there more services for people living with HIV in the United States.”
It also got Szymczyk rethinking his career path. Therefore, when he returned to the States, he quit his job at the photo studio and became interested in working with nonprofits, in particular HIV nonprofits. “I found this executive position [with a nonprofit],” he says. “It got me my foot in the door.” The office was close to Madison Square Park, and he would take his lunch breaks in the park, scanning newspaper articles. A particular article about the increasing cost of education caught his eye, made him wonder if there were any scholarships available for people living with HIV. He found out that there was no national scholarship for people living with HIV.
Szymczyk quit his job at the nonprofit and started working on his own nonprofit. First, he needed a name for his new organization. In order to come up with a good name, he started thinking of what makes the HIV community strong, persistent, and resilient. “All I could think of was a sense of community,” he answers. “I’m [also] a sports person, so I was thinking of something sports-related.” First, the word “team” came to his mind, and then the word “league.” He explains, “I believe that the HIV community consists of two types of individuals. It consists of people living with HIV who are acting on their wellness, their health, on bettering their lives and, in a sense, bettering the lives of those around them in a very meaningful way. [The HIV community also consists of] people who’re not living with HIV, but who are there for people who’re in need of assistance. They are the shoulder to cry on sometimes or the person to talk to when dealing with something that’s really heavy.”
He further explains that HIV doesn’t just mean the virus, in the medical sense. HIV can mean “a slew of a bunch of things.” We need “a strong league of people” to stand up to the virus. That’s where the name came from.
The HIV League scholarship started in 2015, on World AIDS Day. (The next round of scholarship applications starts this year on December 1.) “The organization is run by the board of directors, the advisory board, and myself,” Szymczyk explains. “We [often discuss] what is the best way to provide services for individuals, when it comes to higher education.”
To spread the word about the scholarship, The HIV League reached out to over 225 organizations, community-based organizations and AIDS service organizations, since people living with HIV make up a large portion of their clientele. Two students received, each, a $7,000 scholarship. “We have already doubled our efforts for this upcoming round of scholarships,” Szymczyk says. “So we will have at least four $7,000 scholarships for this next round.” The money is distributed among four semesters, and covers the average two-year community college tuition.”
Szymczyk adds, “We’re very, very proud of our scholars. They are most well deserving of this scholarship, but in very different ways.”
He further comments that “The HIV League seeks to identify and award scholarships to the most promising students living with HIV as evidenced by their educational accomplishments, leadership, and services.”
Applicants don’t need to be U.S. citizens, but, if they win the scholarship, the funds are tied to going to a place of higher education within the U.S. and its territories. In addition, there’s really no age restriction. The age range of individuals who can apply is seventeen to sixty-four. In a way, it represents the HIV community. Hence, there are high school grads who can apply, as well as HIV long-term survivors.
Applicants come from all walks of life and from many backgrounds. “With HIV,” Szymczyk comments, “it doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from. All that matters is that [HIV] is a virus that can affect you. That is why the HIV community is so diverse, not only within the makeup and demographics of people but also political backgrounds.
“Education is a huge part of wellness, at least I believe that. We [at The HIV League] believe that the overall wellbeing of someone living with HIV includes education.” In that sense, The HIV League is unique as an HIV organization. “We’re not public health based, we’re not advocacy based,” Szymczyk says. “We’re a foundation at heart and provide financial support [to individuals living with HIV], because without that support [they] can’t get that education.
“We thrive not only serving the HIV community but working with the HIV community because the HIV community exists as a group of people acting as a strong force towards the overall betterment for people living with HIV. Their strong willpower is one consistent quality of people living with HIV.”
Learn more about HIV League scholarship by visiting: www.hivleague.org.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.