Written by Sarah Nieburg
As an eighteen year old undergrad, I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I volunteered to work at the International AIDS Conference as a part of the UNAIDS team. I learned about the conference through my father, who spent much of his career working for CDC as an MD/MPH and who, over the past decade, has worked closely with CSIS on HIV/AIDS issues. My Dad kept talking to me about this conference, describing some of what I would see and hear. Yet nothing fully prepares you for what you are going to take in and experience in this extraordinary event.
The first day I showed up, all wide -eyed and ready to go. The lady at the volunteer registration took one look at me, smiled politely, handed me two volunteer t-shirts, and asked if I would help pack bags. It suddenly dawned on me that my time a volunteer might be spent more as a part of a huge volunteer machine than being dressed up and impressing the delegates. I sighed and looked over at the thousands of bags that needed to be packed, and proceeded to spend the next four hours packing bag after bag with information about the conference. Whenever the stacks seemed to be getting smaller, another box of those denim shoulder bags would appear. I only spent a few hours there, sure that I had made a dent in the 30,000 bags that needed to be assembled, and with my hands stained blue as the proof! The reality, however, was that many other volunteers worked for hours more packing those bags that day, and the days that followed.
As a volunteer, I met amazing people who were there because of how much they cared about the issue of HIV/AIDS. I watched people of all different backgrounds interact with one another, putting aside whatever biases they might have had to help end this terrible disease. Many of these volunteers were just as passionate about the issues as the delegates themselves. One woman I encountered had driven up from South Carolina with her whole family to volunteer because of how HIV and AIDS had affected her family. Another woman was earning her PhD and wanted to work in infectious disease treatment. The level of these people’s commitment was so impressive that they decided to spend time working in an assembly line just to be apart of it.
I began to see this conference as having three different aspects. On one hand, it was a professional meeting, held to discuss and assess the politics, policies, science and programs on HIV/AIDS. Another side of the conference was a way for people to meet and establish connections. Finally, the conference was an opportunity for people to promote their own organizations and causes relating to HIV/AIDS. At times, however, I found it frustrating when the socializing and promotion part of the event seemed to overtake the professionalism.
Regardless of my occasional annoyances, this internship proved to be very beneficial to me; I met people with all kinds of life stories and made many connections, which I hope I’ll be able to draw upon when I graduate. I found my time working at the conference to be humbling as well, as I realized I was one of a 2,000-person army of volunteers. I saw this conference as another step toward my integration into the real world, enlarging my understanding of the disease, but also increasingly my experiences of how to interact with other people and cultures. I will take the valuable lessons I learned from the conference and apply them to my future endeavors and to my career pathway and goals. This was an experience I am not going to easily forget.