HIV conferences are not for everyone, but they can be empowering, educational and a great way to interact with other people living with HIV. For those community members – people living with HIV – who would like to attend, though, it’s not easy.
Simply put our attendance costs money – for travel and accommodation in particular. If you are not employed in the sector, and even if you are, the way to get there is usually to apply for a community scholarship which will fund your attendance. Those scholarships typically are few and far between. Inevitably many applications end in disappointment. That can be incredibly disheartening.
I know the feeling well. I have been denied a community scholarship three times already this year, to events I would dearly like to attend and to report on, only to get the HIV equivalent of the “Dear John” letter. But I have also been approved for a few too – many over the course of a long career in HIV activism, in fact – so I have learned ways to make success more likely.
It is in fact very helpful to know how the process works. That knowledge both softens the blow when we are denied and perhaps makes it easier to succeed next time.
Scholarships are always a competitive process with more people applying – often many more people – than there is money set aside for. Many funders use a scoring system which will take into account:
a) Geographic distribution. Funders love to see people from all corners of the area they serve represented. If you are from an area where there are not many people living with HIV, you stand a better chance than one coming from a densely populated area, often producing multiple applicants. If the conference is an international one, being from a lesser developed country can be an advantage. You can score points for living rural as opposed to being a city–dweller too.
b) Other demographics. Many scholarship applications will probe whether you come from a population considered to be at risk of HIV. If you can count several overlapping “at risk” categories, you are at an advantage. (Be prepared to write in your own demographic you feel warrants consideration. For example “long term survivor” is seldom listed amongst boxes you can check off. Write it in if it applies.)
c) Answers to skill testing questions. I use the term facetiously but every scholarship application will ask you questions like "what do you intend to do with the information you learn at the conference?”. How well you answer questions like this contributes to your overall score - so give thought to your answers and anticipate what the organizers will want to hear, typically involving maximum coverage of their event.
d) How well known you are. Final decisions are inevitably made by real people sifting through the applicants. They are influenced by whether you are an established name in the community or not. This can work both for and against you. For example some conferences will look for new faces, others value experience.
Despite the process being rigorous, the observation is often made that the same people are picked every time. If that is true, and it’s arguable, the reality is that those people likely score highly always. It is very possible for newcomers to bust through; some, but not all, processes favour previous non-attendees. But yes, the process can be disheartening, particularly if you just don’t have the right demographics.
A denial may not be the end of the line though. Most scholarships encourage applicants to seek alternate sources of funding. I attended the Durban, South Africa International AIDS conference, for example, because, after being denied a community scholarship and a media scholarship, another fund opened up at the last minute. PositiveLite.com chipped in a few bucks and I was all set. That didn’t work for Paris, the site of the 2017 conference; inevitably you win some you lose some.
You can also try appealing. It’s a long shot, but it has worked for me also. Some have tried private fundraising; one enterprising scholar active on social media is encouraging supporters to collect AIR miles to enable him to attend IAS 2018 in Amsterdam. You can also see whether your local AIDS Service Organization, if you are well connected, will subsidize your trip. It’s a long shot, but the trick is to leave no stone unturned.
The truth is, though, that it’s getting more difficult all the time as both government and private funding sources become less enthused about funding gatherings like the ones we have seen in the past. But don’t give up. Meetings like this one are soliciting scholarship applications as we speak. In Ontario, the OHTN has in the past been a friendly source of fall research conference opportunities for community to attend. Others crop up all the time.
Bottom line? Keep trying and eventually you will succeed. See you there? I hope so......