South African Journey

USFer and Alicia Keys Raise HIV/AIDS Awareness

USF and Alicia KeysAlicia Keys (fourth from left) with Kristen Dyer ’12 (fifth from left) and the other winners of the Keep A Child Alive contest who travelled to South Africa. Photo by Brian Braff.

What began for Kristen Dyer ’12 as a quick $5 donation by text message two years ago has grown into a personal campaign to help children infected with HIV/AIDS in South Africa and has led to her being cast as a subject in a Showtime documentary about the effects of the disease.

The “thank you” text she received in reply to her donation invited her to enter a contest by visiting the nonprofit Keep a Child Alive’s (KCA) website, where she was asked to describe what Africa meant to her in a word.

Dyer chose “strength.” It’s a term, as it turns out, that some use to describe Dyer herself, having been kicked out of her mother’s house at 17 (See the related story, below.)

From 24,000 people who submitted entries, Dyer and four others were chosen to spend a week traveling with KCA co-founder and R&B star Alicia Keys to see the nonprofit’s work in South Africa, where it provides antiviral drugs and care for children and families affected by HIV/AIDS.

For Dyer, an aspiring professional photographer, spending a week in South Africa the summer between her sophomore and junior years reaffirmed her belief that photography wasn’t just for galleries. It could change people’s lives.

Since her return, Dyer’s efforts have included using her photos in presentations to USF students, encouraging professors to broach the topic of HIV/AIDS in Africa in class, and hosting a USF screening on World AIDS Day 2011 of “Keep a Child Alive With Alicia Keys”—the Showtime documentary about the group’s trip to South Africa.

Photo Philanthropy, a nonprofit connecting photographers with causes, published some of Dyer’s South Africa images online. The same images helped lead to her recent acceptance as a freelancer for Cavan Images, an online stock photo site.

“South Africa changed everything for me. It’s still changing things, opening doors, reminding me of what’s important,” Dyer said. “I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything.”

From Pain, Great Strength and a Bright Future

Kristen Dyer ’12 flipped open her cell phone after soccer practice on her 17th birthday and found a picture of her belongings lined up on the sidewalk in front of her mom’s house. “Your stuff is ready for you,” read the text message from her stepfather.

There was Dyer’s guitar, carefully placed on its stand; there was one of her board games, Battleship, peeking out from a box; there was a pile of clothes, indignantly listing to one side—all in front of a neatly trimmed adobe home framed by a bright blue sky.

Dyer, a newly minted international studies graduate, keeps the photo as a reminder of the beginning of a new direction in her life.

After leaving home, an event Dyer avoids discussing, she lived in her best friend’s garage while she completed high school. Her aunt then moved Dyer to her San Francisco home and encouraged her niece to apply to college.

Dyer didn’t love the idea.

“Hardly anyone from my high school goes to university. So, when my aunt had me start college applications, I was intent that no one would move me anywhere again,” Dyer recalled. “I looked at the college across the street and said, ‘I’ll apply there and that’s it.’”

The college across the street turned out to be USF. Dyer was accepted on scholarship, a turn of events that felt foreign to her—having grown up so much an outsider. She took the opportunity to remake herself, a way of taking control in her eyes. Upon enrolling, she changed her name (not legally) to Isa, short for Isabella, instead of Kristen. It’s now the name that her family and others know her by.

“In a way, I guess this transition helped me keep the past in the past,” Dyer said.

Dyer became a standout student, earning straight “A”s last fall while taking six courses.

During her time at USF, Dyer worked multiple jobs, traveled to Brazil and South Africa, and gained the confidence to overcome obstacles that might have stopped others in their tracks, all without parental support. She is the first in her family to graduate from college.

Laleh Shahideh, USF associate vice provost and dean of student academic services, whose office reception area Dyer staffed since her freshman year, sees a bright future ahead for Dyer: “She’s one of the strongest people that I have met.”

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