By Michelle Armstrong
Jennifer Curtis--or Jena, as she is known--plans to bat a home run when it comes to educating people about AIDS. This native of Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, has dealt first-hand with the devastation that terminal illness wreaks. Courageously, she turned around the traumatic circumstances that she and her family faced to impart knowledge to others about how to do the same. "I love what I'm doing," says Jena. "I absolutely love it." Like many, Jena began college after completing her senior year of high school. She enrolled in American University for pre-law studies, but unlike many of her peers, family circumstances prompted her to quit during her second year. Her younger brother, the recipient of ongoing treatments for hemophilia, was diagnosed HIV-positive. Hemophilia, which prevents persons' blood from clotting normally, is treated by usage of products that introduce the clotting factor and replace lost blood; however, many hemophiliacs were infected with HIV in the early 1980s because the factors were contaminated blood products. Jena planned to spend time with her brother and her family once she returned home, but soon discovered he had other plans. Rather than stand by and anticipate the inevitable, he wanted to travel the country to educate people about AIDS. Together, they spent five years touring the U.S. to help individuals understand more about the condition.
At age 30, Jena re-enrolled in college, this time studying psychology at the State University of New York at Albany. Anxious to finish her undergraduate degree so she could begin pursuing her true passion, she took an impressive 60 credits in 11 months. "I knew what I really wanted to do," she says. "I really wanted to develop AIDS education programs." To help achieve this goal, she applied and was accepted into TC's Ed.D. program in Health Education. Despite her interest and enthusiasm about the work in which the TC faculty were engaged, she was reluctant to come to New York City. "When you grow up in a small town, you hear horror stories. My parents were convinced that I was going to be mugged," she laughingly recalls. Countering the joy of admittance to the College was the death of her brother the week before her final examinations at Albany. Devastated by the tragic news, Jena knew her test scores would not reflect her true abilities and wondered what her future professors would think when they received her grades. Yet, Professor Charles Basch reassured Jena, telling her not to worry but to "just come."
She did just that in Fall 2000. Wishing to continue playing an active role in educating people about health-related issues, Jena worked with Columbia's Go Ask Alice, a service of the university's health program that allows students to anonymously ask questions about health-related issues, particularly those related to sex education, that are answered online in a Q & A forum. She then sought out Dr. Robert Fullilove, an associate professor at the School of Public Health, who had been teaching an AIDS education class for approximately 10 years. The two partnered to create a 15-week online version of the course via TC's Distance Learning Project so its curriculum could be disseminated to students as well as to people in both small towns and developing nations where access to educational materials may be limited. Student response has been so positive that a second course focusing on AIDS education from a global perspective was added for the Fall 2003 semester. Enrollees span the continents, ranging from a teacher in upstate New York to a TC alumnus in Kenya to a doctor who works with Guatemalan orphans who are battling AIDS. The course was created in response to people working in developing nations where, says Jena, "ninety-five percent of the people don't have access to treatment." In addition, the AIDS class she has taught each semester for the past two years will be offered again in Spring 2004. Teaching, Jena says, is "so personally gratifying. To be able to help people is wonderful."
Jena says it is fascinating to witness how different students' online conversations are from their face-to-face interactions, and the evaluations that she has received reiterate this. Students have expressed they can talk more openly when they communicate over the Web about issues such as challenges faced in the classroom. "They can think about what they want to say and what it means to them," she says, and it gives them the opportunity to share about their own personal experiences. The dynamics of online communication have intrigued Jena so much that she is currently drafting her proposal on how the nature of collaboration changes in an online forum in preparation for her dissertation on the subject. Her work has been shared in several venues, including the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists to whom she presented in Spring 2003 on the topic of collaboration in an online setting. In November 2003, Jena will present to her largest audience to-date when she speaks at the 131st annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in San Francisco. The conference is attended by approximately 30,000 people each year. Her talk will address using the online courses she has helped to create as a method by which to create scalable provider training for AIDS educators who are restricted from receiving professional development due to either location or finance. Her classes are an excellent blueprint for this type of training because while some organizations link their Web site visitors to online information about AIDS, hers is the only 15-week online class that explores AIDS education in an in-depth manner.
And what about her initial trepidation about living in New York? "Now I love it," she exuberates. "I expected my program would be good, but I didn't expect life at TC would be good. Like the popular slogan, Jena proclaims, "I love New York. I really expected to hate it [since I] had grown up in a town of 2,000 [people]. I expected New York to be cold and anonymous, but TC is like a little small town." Helping her and her two children ages 3 and 6 to make to the transition to city living were the Community Assistants in her on-campus apartment building. They hosted an ice cream social when she first moved that gave her children a chance to meet everyone. This made them all feel welcomed, and her children "feel like New York City is full of adults who know and love them." And, even her parents are starting to realize that the City is not so bad after all. Jena was so impressed by the work of the CAs that she decided that she wanted to work with them. After volunteering with them for programs like pumpkin carving and other family-oriented activities, Jena was tapped to fill a CA opening the following year. "Being a CA gives me balance," she says, citing a recent Halloween party hosted for 60 children as an example. "It forces me to do things that are important, but not necessarily academic." In addition to acting as a CA, Jena is the Budget Administrator for the College's Distance Learning Project.
If all goes according to plan, Jena will finish her doctorate by May 2005. She would like to be a professor, or perhaps an administrator of a program if an agency like the Center for Disease Control develops one addressing AIDS education and related issues. She believes she is making a difference by educating society-at-large via her online courses. At times when she feels nervous about speaking before audiences, she fondly remembers how her brother would put her at ease by peering from behind the stage before they spoke groups and joking about how many attendees were present and how intimidating the crowd appeared. She wonders what he would say now about her continuing their work even after his passing. Reflecting on the idea, Jena muses, "I still think he knows, and that he's looking down, smiling."