In 1991, as the AIDS epidemic was just beginning to be widely recognized, a young woman named Jennifer Jako enrolled in my freshman literature class. Into the semester, she told the class that she had been diagnosed with AIDS. She actually had been diagnosed as HIV positive, but none of us were savvy enough to know the difference. At the time she shared this with us, there was no cure and the disease was seen as a death sentence.
(I feel free to write publicly about this because Jen has lived the last 16 years as a very public AIDS activist. She has even been on the cover of Newsweek Magazine when she was pregnant, discussing the safety of giving birth despite her illness.)
Jen was the first student of mine who shared her diagnosis. She also was a heterosexual young woman whose sexual experience was limited to one boy with whom she had had unprotected sex with one time only. Needless to say, this information staggered us all. To that point, most of us thought of this as a disease affecting only very sexually active gay men.
She shared freely, believing that some good needed to come from her experience. I am certain that she caused many students to consider the potential consequences of their behavior. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Thankfully, advances in treatment have allowed her to continue to live and to thrive. She continues her activism, reminding us that the disease still exists. Reminding us to be safe. Thanks Jen.