Student Wins Leadership Award for Helping Young Gay Men Deal with Health, Cultural Issues

Monday, July 6, 2009

Justin Smith, a graduate student in Health Behavior and Health Education at the Gillings School of Global Public at UNC has been named Best LGBT Young Adult Leader by the readers of Q-Notes, the largest LGBT news publication in the Carolinas.

Smith has been very active in the local LGBT community in his role as project coordinator for Project STYLE (Strength Through Youth Living Empowered), a UNC-based HIV prevention, research and linkage-to-care program that helps connect young, HIV positive gay and bisexual men of color to medical treatment and social support services.

Despite a long record of service to the community, Smith had no idea he was nominated for the award, and only learned he had won when a friend saw the announcement on the Q-Notes Web site.

Smith gave up his project coordinator position with Project STYLE when he started the MPH program at UNC, but stays on part-time as a graduate research associate.

Smith’s outreach activities range from leading a support group for UNC students struggling with coming out to holding workshops for young gay men on sexual health and relationships issues to training state health care providers in what he calls “cultural humility.”

When asked why he uses “cultural humility” rather than the more common “cultural competency,” Smith said, “the problem with that approach is people get the idea they can go and be taught the five things to do when dealing with minorities or gay people.” It just doesn’t work that way, he says. “People think they will magically not be racist or homophobic if they just do those five things.”

Cultural humility, on the other hand, is not a list of do’s and dont’s, but rather is about approaching each person and situtation with an open mind.

Smith says his work can sometimes be discouraging. “The first year I was working in a clinic,” he said, “I would see so many young kids coming in with HIV infection.”

Amid the sadness and frustration, however, there are rewards. Smith remembers one 17-year old who was HIV positive. Smith was impressed, because even though the young man was dealing with difficult, adult matters such as partner notification and managing multiple medications, “he was surprisingly mature about it,” Smith said. “But he was also really depressed.” When the patient said he was not going to go to college, Smith encouraged him and even helped him with his application essay.

The young man is now a student at UNC and is doing very well. “It’s amazing to see that kind of transformation,” Smith said.

Experiences like this are what keep Smith going. Even though it is hard to see people dealing with HIV at such a young age, he knows that it is possible to take a bad situation and turn it around.

Center for Infectious Diseases contact: Lisa Chensvold, (919) 843-5719, lisa_chensvold@med.unc.edu.