Biology major launches nonprofit that connects college students with HIV-infected youth in Africa

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A new nonprofit organization co-founded by a Virginia Commonwealth University student is organizing pen pal letter-writing campaigns between American college students and HIV-positive adolescents in Africa.

The organization, PENdulum, which was co-founded by Sahil Aggarwal, a senior biology major in VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences, and Ahsan Ahmad, a student at Benedictine University in Chicago, is looking to sign up volunteers to write letters that can empower and build confidence among HIV-positive youth in Swaziland.

"My one hope through PENdulum is to alleviate at least some of the issues that arise from HIV infection — one of the largest is denial of medical care by community health members — so that affected adolescents can grow up with the chance to make an impact on their communities," Aggarwal said.

The group decided to focus on youth in Swaziland because the southern African nation has the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rate.

The idea, Aggarwal said, is that PENdulum's letters will help give the HIV-positive children the confidence to grow into leaders in their communities, despite the stigma often attached to HIV.

For the college student volunteers, PENdulum has developed a webinar that will train them how to write letters that connect effectively with the HIV-positive youth.

"We don't want to simply throw our volunteers into the program," Aggarwal said. "In order for them to become true empowerment catalysts, they must be educated on the cultural, biological and psychosocial aspects of HIV infection. In this way, we believe that we can benefit both the HIV-positive adolescents by giving them the confidence to become young leaders, as well as the college students who will learn about HIV and become global players of child welfare issues."

As PENdulum was being formed over the past several months, the organization received a number of awards. In April, it won second place and $3,000 in VCU's Venture Creation Competition. And, in May, it was the grand prize winner of VCU's Big Idea competition, which provided $500 in seed funding.

Aggarwal, who hopes to go into medical school following graduation, also co-founded UNICEF at VCU, a student organization that aims to fundraise, advocate and educate on behalf of the United Nation Children's Fund.

Launching PENdulum, he said, has helped broaden his perspective as he seeks to pursue a medical degree.

"'I'm the typical premedical student — as is Ahsan — with hopes to go into cardiology, so it's been rewarding to commit to a cause that has changed the way I view the medical field," he said. "I think that the goal of medicine should be to strive for excellence in care both locally and globally, channeling resources to regions that most require aid."

PENdulum's letters will be sent to youth in the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative's clinic in Swaziland. In the years ahead, the organization hopes to expand the letter-writing campaign to Baylor's additional clinics across Africa, as well as possibly expanding to countries outside Africa that have high HIV-prevalence rates among adolescents.

The organization has also received "tremendous support" from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and Swaziland UNICEF, Aggarwal said.


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