Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) student Michael Clark will head to Uganda for the Fall 2016 semester where he will study the role of conflict and stigma in public health, primarily as it relates to HIV. The trip will be funded by two awards Clark received in March 2016; the Access Africa scholarship from the School of International Training (SIT), and a Fund For Education Abroad (FEA) scholarship.
“Michael was one of 25 scholars nationwide, the only applicant in New York State and the first ever BMCC student to win the FEA scholarship,” said Deborah Stengle, Director of the BMCC Study Abroad program.
She said the program will help guide Clark to his lifelong goals of working on conflict and global health issues both here in New York City and abroad.
“Conflict is something I think of as intimately related to a person's health outcome,” said Clark, a CUNY Baccalaureate Program for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies (CUNY BA) student based at BMCC who also happens to be gay. “Conflict can be war, epidemics, environmental or situations such as collective homophobia.”
As Clark explains, life for Ugandan LGBT people grew more perilous in 2014 when President Yoweri Musevi signed a law that called for gay people to be put to death. Worldwide condemnation led to a court invalidation of the law, but pronounced LGBT oppression, stigma and violence remain.
“With increased stigma, HIV infection rates increase among both LGBT individuals and heterosexuals,” said Clark.
Older student easing back into college
From 1991 until 1999, Michael Clark was a medic in the Army. After that, he spent several years in California working as a wellness coach for people with chronic diseases such as HIV and diabetes. In 2012, he and his partner moved to New York City. He enrolled at BMCC in Fall 2015 at age 40.
“I see BMCC as a place to ease back into the routine of college,” says Clark, who made the Dean’s List during his first semester. “I love BMCC, the faculty and the students. This place helps put a direction on where you want to go.”
In Fall 2015, Clark completed a Community Health class with BMCC Professor Lesley Rennis who introduced him to a love for research. “She is my advisor for an honors project on sexuality among community college students,” said Clark.
Soon after, Clark declared himself a Community Health major, and attended a CUNY BA information session. He was accepted into the program in January 2016 and designed a major Health Research & Conflict Studies. His faculty mentor is Christian Grov, a professor at CUNY School of Public Health and a faculty investigator at the Center for HIV Educational Studies and Training (CHEST).
“I strongly recommend the CUNY BA for anyone who feels like they are a little outside the norm,” said Clark.
In Uganda, Clark will spend three months studying at SIT in the northern city Gulu. During the remaining month, Clark will conduct independent research in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city in the southern part of the country. He will focus on the role of stigma on HIV infections.
Clark says that as LGBT stigma has increased, it has driven many gay men underground. Public health programs were further impeded due to the criminalization of homosexual behavior. Currently around 10.1 percent of the estimated 1.5 million people in Kamapala are HIV positive according to recent studies.
Working with SIT program staff in Uganda, Clark has been able to develop his upcoming research program. He has also reached out to Dr. Frank Mugisha, the executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG) who has been recognized as a leader for LGBTQ rights in East Africa. Mugisha’s work earned him a nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. In February 2016, Clark spent an afternoon with Mugisha while he was in New York.
“We discussed how I can best focus my research on something that will help make life easier for the LGBTQ community in Uganda,” said Clark,who admits he has personal safety concerns considering what has been reported about Uganda over the years. “I don’t plan on taking my rainbow flag.
Concerns about safety are paramount, but Clark says his sources in Uganda are confident he will gain access to the underground gay community.
Studying Abroad at BMCC
When his time in Kampala is up, he will prepare a 40- to 50-page report on his findings.
“Michael will gain hands-on field experience through his original, field-based research that can assist him with his academic program and future professional goals through BMCC, the CUNY BA program and beyond,” said Stengle.
After completing his CUNY BA, Clark plans to further his education with a Master of Public Health degree. “Ideally, I would like to attend the Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health because of the program’s global focus.”
Long term, Clark says he would like to work for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the World Health Organization or a similar NGO focusing on sexual health and vulnerable populations in post-conflict settings.