Twenty-five years ago, Aundaray Guess started college at the age of 19. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with HIV and dropped out of school. Guess, who is from Minneapolis, then got kicked out of his house when his mom found out about his status and sexuality.
For months, he slept in his car and applied for job after job until he was hired by a community theater. It was there that Guess began writing plays and launched Flayva Cabaret, a company focused on LGBT artists of color. About 11 years ago, Guess decided to move to New York for a life change. But it wasn’t until a chance encounter at a drug store that he also decided to return to school and complete his degree.
Guess graduated from New York University with a social science degree on Monday, and received extensive academic accolades. The Voice caught up with him to talk about the challenges of going to school as an adult with HIV.
Village Voice: Congrats on graduating! Tell us: What made you return to the classroom?
Aundaray Guess: I went back to school about five years ago. The reason it took me so long was I started to go part time. Originally, I went to college right after I got out of high school in 1985, but back then there was a lot of things going against me.
VV: Like what?
Guess: Unfortunately in my family, education wasn’t a big achievement. At that time, I felt that success was a negative and then also, I had recently found out that I was HIV positive. I almost didn’t see the point. I felt that by the time I graduated, I would be ready to die. So I was literally planning my funeral way back after I got out of high school. And more and more as I was living, I thought: ‘Wow, I’m still here.’ I would say what motivated me to go back to school was that it was always one of my goals, and I was always scared to achieve it. I thought that by the time I did, I would be too old. I actually ran into a guy into a drug store when I was picking up my HIV medication, and he asked if I was at school and I told him how old I was, and that by the time I got my degree, I would be around 44. He said: ‘You will be 44 regadless, you might as well have your degree.’ So it was a waking moment for me.
VV: Was it tough?
Guess: It definitely has been a challenge, especially when you are an adult learner, and I don’t want to say that my status had an impact, but in some ways it had.
VV: What was most difficult?
Guess: As an adult you have all these other external things you cant put to the side. You still have rent. You still have domestic responsibilities. Being a pet owner, you still have people, things depending on you. So for me, the biggest challenge was all about time management. Also a really big challenge was with friends and family because for some reason, they don’t understand that just because it’s Saturday doesn’t mean that I now have a free day. So sometimes friends and family don’t understand and they have a slight resentment.
VV: How did your status impact your studies?
Guess: No matter how much you do time management, there is a crash in your immune system. There were times when my immune system was just so taxed that I just didn’t have any energy. I think the biggest thing for me, early on, I tried to disguise it and keep it from my professors so they didn’t undertstand why I wasn’t reading or hanging in certain papers. The hardest thing to realize was that I had to be up front with them about my status and not to use my status as a shield to let me get away with not doing assignments, but so they had a greater understanding if I did stuff out of the normal, such as missing class or if I had to leave class early.
Also it was those moments when you do get a little bit of anger because although I’ve only been healthy and especially after 25 plus years, when you get those little moments that you still have it, those little reminders that HIV is saying: “I’m stll here,” it gets you upset. I would turn that anger into energy to push my weight through it by you know, not missing class or making sure, you know, making up assignments or doing anything extra so it didn’t hold me back as it did all those other years.
VV: How did students react to your status?
Guess: I was always out with my status. I didn’t really have that fear of other students knowing but every so often, you’d get somebody who would say something in class that was derogatory about somebody who was positive. Then I’d have to decide: should I be the spokesmodel for all negative words that I hear about HIV patients?
VV: But generally speaking, the students were cool?
Guess: You had a lot of positive people. I think if anything, it was less my HIV status and it was more my race.
Guess: It’s so surprising because New York is a big multicultural melting pot. Unfortunately the truth is that on the campus, although there are a lot of African-American women, I can say honestly in all the years of my school, I only had seven, maybe 10, African-American guys in a particular class. Sometimes it was real blatant. I would get on the elevator and somebody would get off the elevator. When you see it the first time, you think: ‘Aundaray, you’re being hyper sensitive.’ But when you see a pattern. Recently, in my last class I just finished, there was a woman. She was already sitting when I came in. I sat down and I could tell she was a little bit nervous. She got up and switched seats.
VV: What are your goals post-graduation?
Guess: One of the projects I want to work on is to develop ways to help African-Americans remain in college and graduate. I don’t feel llike they have the support at their colleges. My idea is to look at the retention rate for African-American men, excluding poverty and excluding criminal records, but looking at African-American men who have the ability to go. If I wanted to carry out this kind of project, I would do a study with the African-American freshman and observe their patterns in one school year to see what their challenges are. If I were to go further, it would be to look at high schools and see whether they’re preparing African-American men for college life.
VV: Since your return to school, has your family’s view of education shifted?
Guess: They’ve changed their mind somewhat. As I got closer, they were happy for me. Some of them never expressed it. You still wait for that Disney moment where you reach the end and everyone comes to embrace you, but the reality is that when I graduated this past Monday, no family members, no blood relatives, came to New York to see me walk. In fact, no family members called me on the phone to say ‘thank you.’ I think I had a couple family members who used Facebook. I think by spending my life in the past and also, I think by trying to make people what I want them to be, is an impossible task. All I can do is be there for when they need me and to make my goals my own — not for the sake of seeking acceptance from others. So I’m good. [Laughs.] No tears shed.