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Four students take spring break in Africa

They could be soaking up the sun in Cancun, Mexico, or Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but they’ll be in South Africa for their West Virginia University spring break, helping agencies there who are dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

From March 26 through April 3, for the opportunity to visit a country dealing with disease and poverty, four students in the College of Business and Economics will be paying more than $3,000 each —more than enough for a week in Florida or Mexico, traditional haunts of college students seeking spring release on the beach.

In Africa they will be helping to establish “micro loans” small loans that can mean a big difference in developing economies, and applying other business skills to help agencies that help people affected by HIV/AIDS. The disease has killed more than 25 million people across the globe, kills approximately 6,000 people every day and infected more than 400,000 children in 2008.

Tristan Gartin

The students will also be commenting on their experiences and posting photos and videos on a blog:

Tristin Gartin of Chapmanville, W.Va., said she enrolled in the class for a unique learning experience.

“I think it will be eye-opening,” she said. “I want to better know what’s going on, so that something stays with me so that when I come home I can shed some light on the crisis. People think the HIV/AIDS problem is under control and it’s not an issue. It’s definitely an issue.”

Gartin, who last year won the West Virginia Society of CPAs Outstanding Accounting Senior Award, said she is planning to attend graduate school. She is thinking of making a career in not-for-profit accounting. “Until I talked to Dr. Neidermeyer, I didn’t realize that an accounting career in not-for-profits is an option. It’s funny that I discovered what I want to do just before I graduate.”

She read a book her professor wrote on the crisis and decided to see for herself. “I knew I would probably never have the opportunity to go to Africa again,” she said. “You don’t often get a chance to go on a trip with someone who has lived there and written a book on AIDS. I read Dr. Neidermeyer’s book, and I cried every time I read it. It was really sad. We take what we have in America for granted, I think.”

Presha Neidermeyer, who organized the trip to help in AIDS-devastated areas of Africa, said the problem is a crisis “of critical proportions.” She and her co-author, Dr. Roger W. Hoerl of GE Global Research and Development in New York, believe the AIDS crisis can be surmounted, and the title of their book, “Use What You Have,” points to the solution.

The class will work with a West Virginia organization and one in South Africa. This will give the students an opportunity to see not only how a not-for-profit works, but it will also allow them to use their skills for the betterment of the agency.

“Business students can be immensely useful to the not-for-profits who are helping vast numbers of people cope with the disease and the familial situations that arise as a result of it,” Neidermeyer said. “When people think of HIV/AIDS it is fairly obvious how medical personnel can help; however, few people consider that running a not-for- profit, whether a clinic or child-care center, requires business skills, too.”

Mac Festa

Mac Festa, a finance senior from Ohiopyle, Pa., said he wanted a different kind of experience, too. “I’m looking to experience something different, outside the norm of this country,” he said. “From everything that I’ve been told, in Africa it’s the ultra wealthy living next to the ultra poor. I’m interested in seeing how that works, and what we can do to solve a problem. This is actually the first time I’ve ever left the country, so I figured if I’m going to go, I might as well go somewhere a lot of people never get to go.”

Elizabeth Slack

Elizabeth Slack of Charleston said she’s looking for a new viewpoint. “I signed up without really knowing what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I was interested in the travel aspect, but I didn’t have a lot of details. While I am familiar with the statistics on AIDS/HIV, it will be a very different situation seeing the people who are affected everyday by this disease. I hope to learn a lot. I am anxious to visit a new country, experience a new culture, and become more aware of what is going on with the AIDS epidemic.”

Jessica Ross

Jessica Ross, a marketing sophomore from Pittsburgh said she enrolled in the class for a learning experience she couldn’t get in Cancun. “I have always wanted to go to Africa, and I want to be able to help out any way that I can,” Ross said. ”So when this opportunity came up, I took it. I would rather know that I am doing some good instead of treating myself to Cancun, Mexico, for spring break. I read Dr. Neidermeyer's book, and it is great - it taught me a lot. I know the basics of how AIDS is spread and how it has best been dealt with on small scales. The best way is to stop the transmission of it, but that is hard to do because of the different cultures. There is no universal answer for AIDS, which makes it hard because I feel like people don't want to really commit to helping. Sending money somewhere can only do so much and will not solve the AIDS problem. The main thing with Africa is the culture: Answers such as "use condoms" or "educate the people" or "give jobs" is not an easy thing to do for many reasons.”