Appalachian State University's Response to HIV/AIDS

During the mid-1980s, the University of North Carolina System’s awareness of HIV/AIDS heightened. The state of North Carolina ranked twenty-first in the nation for reported AIDS cases, with 193 diagnosed AIDS cases by 1986.[1] Although North Carolina’s AIDS rate was statistically low, UNC System President Bill Friday responded by requiring each of the sixteen campuses to develop an AIDS policy to address both medical concerns and discrimination that year.[2] Chancellor John E. Thomas charged the ASU AIDS Task Force to investigate the issue. Within his memorandum discussing the AIDS Task Force, Thomas also stated that persons infected with HIV would not be excluded from campus activities, as the state law considered people with AIDS to be disabled. The advisory board, co-chaired by Student Health Director Dr. Evan Ashby and Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs Barbara Daye, established an educational program.[2] It sponsored a buddy program and speakers to discuss transmission and prevention of the virus as well as living with HIV. The Task Force also received heavy coverage in the college’s school newspaper, The Appalachian, with educational pieces about transmission, prevention, and incidence rates.[3]

Although Appalachian counties have never had high HIV incidence rates, Appalachian students come from diverse communities where the virus is far more prevalent, and they bring their concerns with them to campus. Many students, particularly gay students, socialized in urban-based bars. From 1985 to May 1987, the Watauga County Health Department conducted 98 HIV antibody tests, all with negative results. The county’s first reported AIDS case was an ill native returning home in 1987.[4] By 1989, the administration had become aware of one HIV+ student, who dropped out of school shortly afterwards.[5]

Most likely, a larger number of infected campus members existed than Watauga County statistics imply. Many individuals do not get tested until symptoms begin to appear. From the 1980s to the mid-1990s, North Carolina allowed anonymous HIV antibody testing, meaning that documentation of the state’s infection rate was incomplete. Only test results linked to individuals’ names and addresses can be used to determine the number of seropositive results. HIV+ students taking local confidential tests, or tests with names provided, may be listed under their home addresses rather than their school addresses. Finally, notifying the campus’ health center of their status was left to the students’ discretion. The students’ tendency to use anonymous tests and be reported in their hometowns may explain why only 20 cases of HIV have been cumulatively reported for Watauga County through 2005.[6]

Campus lore from alumni and Student Development personnel also indicate a larger infection rate than reported. Late 1980s-to-early-1990-era students remember friends’ receiving HIV positive results, and one recalls personally knowing about a dozen HIV+ gay students. Student Development employees worked with HIV+ students to omit their seropositive status from the official paperwork when they withdrew from school, but according to former students, many HIV+ students remained in school. Evidence for a higher than previously acknowledged presence of HIV+ students on campus also comes from a campus physician who worked with the now defunct local HIV/AIDS support group. In 1991, Pat Geiger was quoted stating, “We probably have about 20-25 students here (at Appalachian) that are HIV+."[5] She remembers a number of students attending the community-based support group. Also, a professor died from complications related to AIDS in 1991 and many former students have died of AIDS-related illnesses as well. First-hand accounts illustrate how deeply HIV/AIDS affected Appalachian despite Watauga County’s low case rate.[7][8][9][10][11][12][13][14]


  1. Jenny Schrum, “AIDS Causes Mental and Physical Problems,” The Appalachian, 2 October 1986, 15; “AIDS Cases Increasing,” The Front Page, 18 August 1987, p. 3.
  2. Trent Huffman, “New AIDS Advisory Council Formed at ASU to Inform Students,” The Appalachian, 24 April 1986, p. 1.
  3. Amy Scheliga, “Concern for AIDS on Campus Grows,” The Appalachian, 1 October 1991, 5; Tiffany Whitley, “AIDS Task Force Promotes City Awareness,” The Appalachian, 18 February 1992, p. 5.
  4. Dana Scott, “Watauga County is Relatively Free of AIDS Virus,” The Appalachian, 5 May 1987, 1. The HIV antibody ELISA test was created in 1985 shortly after the 1985 discovery of HIV.
  5. Tracey Coffron, “College Students at Highest Risk for AIDS Infection,” The Appalachian, 26 February 1991, 1.
  6. Division of Public Health, North Carolina Epidemiologic Profile for HIV/STD Prevention and Care Planning (State of North Carolina: Raleigh, NC, 2006), D-13. With anonymous testing, the same HIV+ individual may test multiple times thereby skewing the statistics. In 2005, North Carolina’s cumulative total for HIV positive tests was 28,485. Only 913 of these cases originated from North Carolina’s twenty-three Appalachian counties, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
  7. Alice Sherman (pseudonym), Interview with Kathy Staley, 6 April 2006 and 14 September 2006.
  8. Dianne Wally, “Although No Problem: AIDS Case Diagnosed in County,” The Appalachian, 26 January 1989, p. 1.
  9. Lee O’Malley, interview with Kathy Staley, 31 December 2006.
  10. John Magers, Appalachian Memory Project Records, W.L. Eury Appalachian Collection, Belk Library and Information Commons, Appalachian State University.
  11. The AIDS Memorial Quilt: The Names Project Foundation, accessed at, viewed on 8 December 2008.
  12. Lynn Patterson, Interview with Kathy Staley, 5 June 2006.
  13. Tom Beaman, Interview with Kathy Staley, 30 August 2006.
  14. Pat Geiger, Interview with Kathy Staley, September 8, 2006.