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Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Campus

UH students play it SMART with HIV testing


“A lot of students want to join the organization, but we are truly a program,” said SMART Cougars’ health promotion specialist Esmeralda Sotelo. | Ruth Wilson/The Cougar

An increasing number of UH students are using the free HIV testing and other services from SMART Cougars.

The program is active from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Campus Recreation and Wellness Center. SMART Cougars has become so busy that administrators now encourage students to make appointments even though walk-ins are welcome. 

“This is our third year doing this, and we’ve seen more people in the last two months than we saw all last semester,” said Miguel Garza, SMART Cougars’ health promotion specialist.

Necessary test

Garza and other staff members of SMART Cougars actively aim to eliminate the stigma surrounding HIV testing on campus and in the UH community.

We like to dress casual, so the students don’t feel like we are superior and they are less than us,” Garza said. “We are trying to break the stigma and get the conversation started, and I think this is starting to happen. We are getting more people involved.”

Many students want, but find it difficult, to volunteer for SMART Cougars. Esmeralda Sotelo, also a health promotion specialist, said that students must go through a lot of training to interact with clients.

Sotelo encouraged students to use social media and persuade their friends to get tested.

“What I have wanted to do is get a list and start emailing them and connecting them to start an organization,” Sotelo said. “Partners in sexual health stuff just would not do the testing and all of that.”

Liberal studies senior Kourtney Burgess was surprised to hear about SMART Cougars and the help they offer.

It’s super important to have easy access to testing that would otherwise be embarrassing to seek out,” Burgess said. “It’s for the good of everyone. People should be informed and aware of the risks, tools and importance of sexual activity.”

Sotelo and Garza hope to build a non-judgmental and welcoming atmosphere at SMART Cougars.

“You don’t have to come to get tested,” Sotelo said. “You can even drop in to get condoms if you’re not ready to get tested. You can come by to chat or just to check out the wellness center.”

For the community

Sotelo said that the testing process is quick and simple. After a student comes to the Rec Center, they are asked to sign a consent form. Health specialists will then do an oral swab for 30 seconds — no needles or blood testing needed.

“We test anyone that comes in here,” Garza said. “If a student comes with their partner, we are going to test both of them. We don’t turn anyone away no matter what.”

Sotelo said that the results are available after 20 minutes. If needed, students will be given referrals that include the Houston Area Community Services (HACS), a federally qualified health care center that provides resources such as full mental health exams, behavioral health, birth control and gynecology.

Another referral is the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). Its financial backing derives from a grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

“They are sufficient for what we need, but we are restricted with what we can get on incentives,” Sotelo said.

SMART Cougars will host their second annual drag show from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at F Bar to raise awareness of both SMART Cougars and combat HIV-testing stigma.

“Last year it was here on campus, but now we are trying to integrate more into the LGBT community,” Sotelo said. “It’s a fun bar and it’s built for drag.”

For more information about SMART Cougars, contact Esmeralda Sotelo at [email protected]

[email protected]

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