COPH doctoral student Hunter Drake named HIV League Scholar

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USF College of Public Health doctoral student Hunter Drake has been named an HIV League Scholar for 2020 and awarded a two-year, $7,000 scholarship.

The HIV League Scholarship is the only national scholarship for students living with HIV and recognizes “the immense potential of its scholars, and aims to build their knowledge, skills, and leadership,” according to the non-profit organization’s website.  

“As a survivor of HIV, I know all too well the detrimental outcomes of stigma,” Drake said. “There is no domain of life left untouched by the effects of stigma. It can lead to depression, low self-esteem, self-hatred, ostracization, social withdrawal, poor medication adherence, and even dropping out of care. Prejudice and discrimination hurt, and I do not want anyone else to ever go through the kinds of experiences I had.”

USF COPH doctoral student Hunter Drake. (Photo courtesy of Drake)

Drake, who also earned his master’s degree in psychology from USF, said this scholarship provided an opportunity to network with other scholars living with HIV and expand upon his educational experiences.

“Earning this scholarship meant the opportunity to take an additional course this semester learning to conduct focus groups,” Drake said. “While I have informal training, getting both theory and instructed practice formally under my belt enables me to better serve the labs I work with at USF and the HIV community with which I work.”

In addition to working toward his doctoral degree, Drake is working with Dr. Stephanie Marhefka, COPH professor and assistant dean for research, on an R01 called The Positively Quit Study examining novel video group based approaches to smoking cessation. He’s also involved in two additional research initiatives, one examining the decisional capacity for youth living with HIV to consent to participate in treatment and research and another examining the stigma experiences of black and brown same-gender-loving men.

“These projects are allowing me the time to better formulate my research questions around stigma,” Drake said.

Drake said he hopes that other students living with HIV feel empowered to see the ways HIV League Scholars are advancing in academia and that it helps to reduce the stigma they may feel.

“There is much work to be done in the area of health-related stigma, and I am developing more than a few novel ideas on how to improve our response to both enacted and internalized stigma,” he said.

Drake is also hopeful of the ways those in public health can help reduce stigma.

“Public health practitioners can help by using less stigmatizing language. People are not the virus; they live with the virus. To me, referring to people living with HIV as ‘HIV-infected’ is degrading. I prefer to be called a person living with HIV,” he said. “Second, no policy affecting people living with HIV should ever be crafted, implemented, or assessed without the input of the HIV community. Third, more community-based participatory research should be done to improve the research questions being asked about people living with HIV.  

Drake said upon graduating he hopes to continue in academia as a professor and researcher and is thankful for the experiences he’s had at the USF COPH.

“The USF COPH has a beating collective heart. I have never seen a place where so many people come together from multidisciplinary backgrounds and cultures to coordinate efforts in service to goals meant to care for and protect the wellbeing of the world,” he said. “Simply put, we have the most incredible faculty, students, and staff right here in the USF College of Public Health.”

Learn more about the scholarship and this year’s scholars here:

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health