Austin Nation talks about his disease in an effort to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS. Photo by Karen Tapia
Raising HIV Awareness
Graduate Student With AIDS Pushes Prevention
HIS FRANK SEX TALK sprinkled with laugh-getting one-liners had drawn giggles from the lecture hall full of community college students.
But an hour into Austin Nation's talk about AIDS, their murmurs and nervous laughter suddenly shut down. Even the guy jangling his keys in the back row stopped as the hall fell silent, all eyes glued on the affable speaker.
“Twenty-three years ago, I tested positive — HIV positive,” Nation, a 48-year-old Cal State Fullerton nursing graduate student, told the Cypress College students. “For all of you who do not know anyone with AIDS, now you do, and my name is Austin.”
Opening a stuffed suitcase to pull out dozens of bottles of prescription drugs, he added: “Like some of my peers, I take a cocktail combo of medications and vitamins for my lungs, because they’re very vulnerable; for bone density, because AIDS ages our bodies; for lack of energy, depression, problems with my thyroid, my endocrine system, adrenals, neuropathy . . . and these are just some of the drugs I take."
At a cost of $2,000 to $3,000 a month for the medications, Nation said, "you don’t want to mess with this disease.”
His audience took note. Some broke down in tears.
“That was really touching,” 19-year-old Cameron Sereno, told Nation giving him a hug after his lecture concluded. “My uncle died in the early 90s and I haven’t met anyone else with AIDS until now. It’s such a horrible death sentence and you are so strong.”
Many called Nation brave and said his talk informed them like no other AIDS awareness campaign.
Their professor, Susan Johnson, said she always requests Nation as a speaker for her human sexuality class because “he engages you right from the beginning.”
Indeed. He caught the students’ attention with his opening line: “To talk about HIV, we have to talk about sex, like bam!”
Students listened raptly as they jotted down safe sex tips and precautions.
“In California, someone is being infected with HIV every nine minutes," Nation explained. "About a fifth of the people infected don’t even know it. If you are having unprotected sex, you are at risk.”
The students “relate to Austin,” Johnson said. “They always tell me that Austin makes a difference in their lives, their choices.”
That’s his goal. One of the university's top nursing graduate students, Nation donates his time as a speaker for AIDS Services Foundation Orange County.
A recipient of the 2010 William Randolph Hearst/CSU Trustees' Award for Outstanding Achievement and a member of this year’s class of Sally Casanova California Pre-Doctoral Scholars, Nation is in Cal State Fullerton's Graduate Assistant in Areas of National Need Program and in UCLA's Minority Training Program in Cancer Control Research.
The Fullerton resident has received numerous merit scholarships and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in nursing and a career as a professor after graduation in May.
In 2009, Nation graduated from CSUF with honors, earning his bachelor’s degree in nursing after a two-decade hiatus from higher education.
Born in Milwaukee, Wis., Nation was part of a big dysfunctional family. Both parents were alcoholics and separated during his childhood.
He worked as a nurse for nearly two decades starting in 1977. While earning his associate's degree from Long Beach City College and gaining licensure as a registered nurse, he admits that his freewheeling private life centered around “drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll."
Despite such distractions, he was a serious student.
“I was the smart one,” he recalled. “I was the one who was going to get our family out of the ghetto.”
Things were looking up. Nation loved his job as a hospital nurse. He saved his money and bought a house in Huntington Park.
Everything changed in 1992 when his HIV converted into full-blown AIDS. Deserted by his family and many of his friends and too sick to work, he lost his home and started preparing for death.
“I had a horrible childhood, now this,” Nation said. “Why me? And, for what? For having fun?”
That was nearly two decades ago and “I’m still here,” he said. “My 30s were a complete blur, but a light went on when I turned 40. God has something else for me to do. I’m convinced God ain’t through with me. My work’s not done. There’s something bigger.”
As an undergrad, he created Cal State Fullerton's Nursing Students Association, and serves on the advisory board of Global Lifeworks, an organization trying to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“I didn’t come back to school for any accolades or awards,” Nation said. “I’m on a mission.”
He is touching lives and making a difference, said Nation’s mentor, Aimee Nelson, assistant dean of the College of Education.
"From the moment he became a student here, he wanted to be involved in everything," she said. "He’s a great person, sweet, caring, obviously meant to be a nurse. He’s had setbacks in his life, but he doesn’t use them as excuses and he’s really worked hard for what he’s earned.”
Nation plans to keep telling his story and raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
“I want to put a face on this thing," he said. "If one person hears my message and changes his or her behavior, I’m satisfied.”
December 6, 2010