Something positive came out of a life-threatening crisis for SIT alumnus Carlton Rounds, an international educator, human rights activist, performance artist, and a self-proclaimed global nomad.
“I was teaching and working for an educational think tank at Bard College,” recalls Rounds. “I didn’t feel well so I went and got tested. Turns out I was [HIV] positive. I thought, ‘Oh crap.’”
“It wasn’t the virus that was such a shock. It was the level of suffering I had to interact with,” he says, recalling the ordeal 10 years ago. “Everything was medicalized. Nobody asked me, ‘how does this fit into your life goals?’” says Rounds.
Instead they advised him to make a will.
But he wasn’t worried that he was going to die. Mostly, he feared it would prevent him from working abroad.
Rounds has worked with the Soros Foundation’s scholarship division, traveling to Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. As the Associate Director for the Institute of International Liberal Education at Bard College, he managed study abroad programs to Central European University in Budapest, Smolny College in Russia, and The International Human Rights Exchange in South Africa. He also served as the Assistant Director of the Study Abroad Center for International Programs at SUNY New Paltz.
Rounds currently lives in Portland, Oregon, and works as Director of Campus Engagement for Cross Cultural Solutions, an international volunteer organization.
He has come a long way since his diagnosis.
Not only has he been able to work abroad, he has created a platform for others who are HIV positive to do the same.
Rounds credits his education at SIT for helping him explore his identity as a tool for community development.
“You must know who you are in order to be of service to others,” he says
While he was still struggling with his own diagnosis, he read a story about a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine who tested positive for HIV and was told to leave the program. Jeremiah Johnson later filed a discrimination suit against the Peace Corps and won.
“Because of who I am I created change.”
Rounds was moved by his story and reached out to Johnson.
“I wanted him to know that he’s part of the global community,” says Rounds, who helped Johnson find a volunteer opportunity in Peru.
“It was 2005, and I didn’t know one HIV positive person volunteering,” Rounds recalls. “Until Jeremiah, there was a systematic message.”
Working with Johnson encouraged Rounds to disclose he was also living with the virus and eventually to found and fund Volunteer Positive, the first international volunteer service organization for people HIV infected and HIV affected.
“I realized that in order to live a long life and reject stigma and shame I had to come up with my own way forward because I wasn’t finding it,” says Rounds. “Because of who I am I created change.”
The aim of Volunteer Positive is to show the strength of the community as caregivers — not receivers — and highlight the unique ability to contribute to the world because of the experience of being HIV positive, not in spite of it.
“Our program was heavy duty work. The message I wanted to send was we are HIV positive, and we are strong.”
He saw the potential to make HIV a tool.
“I emptied my savings. I didn’t want to depend on anyone. I had to prove my resilience to myself.”
Rounds went to Thailand and met with HIV organizations in Chiang Mai to see if it was a place he could bring volunteers. He secured permission and sixteen volunteers — all male except for one woman went on the first program.
Shortly after they arrived in Chiang Mai, a local hospital asked if the volunteers would work with HIV positive children. A school for Buddhist monks wanted to work with them as “conversation partners.”
“This program was intense,” says Rounds. “We weren’t going to do two hours of service and then go shopping. Our program was heavy duty work. The message I wanted to send was we are HIV positive, and we are strong,” he says.
He recalls the story of the oldest volunteer, a man age 70, who went up to Hill Tribe country. There he met a 16-year-old girl who was positive. She didn’t like taking her medication. She said to the senior volunteer, ‘Are you going to live to be 85’?
“No one had ever asked him that,” says Rounds. “He told me, ‘for the first time I believed myself when I said yes.’ In him, all these young people saw there was a future. He cried.”
“Everyone who went on the program came back and did more than they ever did before. It redefined who they are.”
The U.S. Consul General invited them for a special dinner on one of their last evenings in Chiang Mai and told them, “you are the first type of diplomats of your kind to come here,” recalls Rounds. “He said, ‘we are so proud of you.’ The group was stunned.”
Surprisingly, coming home was emotionally challenging. But the experience of volunteering overseas had a profound effect on the participants, literally giving them a new lease on life. One went to graduate school, another started a business, three returned to Chiang Mai, and another is starting a non-profit for children with one of the Buddhist monks.
“Everyone who went on the program came back and did more than they ever did before. It redefined who they are,” says Rounds.
Rounds believes that Volunteer Positive is helping to change the narrative of living with HIV. He’s thinking strategically about the second trip, focusing on people working with the HIV community, who would be a support network for future volunteers.
Reflecting on how Volunteer Positive has transformed him, Rounds says, “I couldn’t have done it alone. It had to be with community, and it had to be international because that’s who I am.”
“They saved my life,” he adds.