World AIDS Day: Interview with History Graduate Timothy Krulic

Timothy Krulic is an Honours graduate from the University of Melbourne, having undertaken a combined degree in History and English and Theatre Studies. Since 2015, he has worked at Living Positive Victoria, where he is currently a Health Promotion Officer. Forum’s Nicole Davis interviewed him recently about his current work and how his studies influenced his current trajectory.

Tell us a little about your degree at University of Melbourne and how it influenced you.

At Melbourne I loved reading history, literature and performance. I always gravitated towards questions of gender, sexuality, colonialism and other historically excluded, stigmatised or misunderstood perspectives and experiences.

In retrospect, this grounding in the humanities and social sciences was ideal preparation for a career in HIV community health and research.

HIV is a profoundly social disease. The virus is transmitted through sex and injecting drugs, both deeply intimate, social practices. HIV is also heavily stigmatised. Its cultural and social impacts and determinants reach far beyond medical management.

How did you become involved in HIV community health work, and what kind of work does your role involve?

I started working at Living Positive Victoria in 2015.

At the time I was still studying and I took on short-term contracts where I thought I could contribute. Initially, that was grant writing and an evidence review to develop youth services. I gained skills in community engagement, health promotion and community participatory research in a range of different paid and volunteer positions. This eventually led to full-time work.

Living Positive Victoria is a peer-led community organisation that provides advocacy and support for people living with HIV. Most of its board of directors and staff are HIV positive. The organisation uses this lived experience to inform its community engagement, practices and services. This community-led approach creates a safe and reassuring environment for people living with HIV to receive the information, support and connections that will enable them to live well with the virus.

I now produce and edit health promotion content for our members and the wider HIV community and services sector. I also support research and evaluation across the organisation. This means that I get to work closely with researchers, advocates, activists, healthcare providers and people living with HIV and help share their work, stories and experiences.

Timothy (C) has worked in a range of education and support programs at Living Positive Victoria, including the Gen Next support group for youth and young people living with HIV. Photograph © Daniel Burke

Most recently I’ve embarked on a PhD in Public Health, studying a peer navigation program run by Living Positive Victoria. The program is a partnership that employs peer staff to work with clinical services across Melbourne. This integration of peer practices and insights into clinical services strengthens access to treatment, care and community participation. My project is aimed at deepening our understanding of how peer navigation programs lead to changes in health and health services. This will hopefully benefit their wider promotion and adoption in HIV and other areas of healthcare.

Those who benefit most from peer navigation are people who experience high levels of stigma and low access to HIV knowledge, information and community. Most often, that’s heterosexual women and men, and overseas born gay, bi and homosexually active men. For many, without this program, it would have taken years to meet another person living with HIV. Evaluation data show that the program is associated with improvements in quality of life and disease self-management – in line with international research.

My particular research interest is in the cultural, social and organisational contexts that influence program design, delivery and effects.

The early Australian response to the AIDS epidemic was a famously successful partnership between gay men, government and the medical profession. The Australian partnership harnessed peer and community insights to inform and enhance HIV policy, practice and prevention. It saved thousands of lives.

This model of health policy remains largely intact but there are still many benefits and innovations happening in HIV care and support.

What is clear from my research is that ongoing investment in the HIV peer response is invaluable. Peer-led organisations, like Living Positive Victoria, are uniquely placed to develop, lead and foster peer programs. The long-term appreciation of community expertise in the Australian HIV sector also contributes to the acceptance of peer and nonprofessional workers as genuine collaborators in clinical settings.  

Timothy (R) and his supervisor, Dr Graham Brown, worked together on the What Works and Why (w3) Project, developing approaches for evaluating the impact of peer programs in the Australian HIV and HCV response. Photograph © Daniel Burke

I’m doing the PhD under the supervision of Dr Graham Brown at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, which has a long history of collaboration with Living Positive Victoria. I met Graham working on a previous research project trialling methods for evaluating the role and impact of peer-based programs. I’d been working in the area for some time and always found the history of community participation in the response to HIV and AIDS inspiring. When I found out that a PhD position would be attached to a study in the field, I applied. I can sometimes doubt myself, but his mentorship and guidance gave me the confidence to pursue a career in research.

Your life experiences seem closely connected to your work and research. What impact do you think that’s had on you? And is there any advice you’d give to people negotiating a similar path?

Any journey from a degree like the Bachelor of Arts to a far more specialised area of work or study is going to be highly personal. For a long time I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my degree – I think I just let life happen.

HIV has always played a role in my life – first in my upbringing, then in my sexuality and later in my work. But a strong understanding of HIV and other disease as fundamentally social phenomena really underpins my work and research. I attribute that intellectual perspective to training in the humanities and social sciences.

Working in community health and research has facilitated huge personal and professional growth for me. The community that has built around HIV unites a lot of people from completely different walks of life. I have witnessed so many inspiring journeys and met lifelong friends and mentors.

I’d encourage everyone to value what you have to offer and bring your life experiences into your study, research or career.

World AIDS Day is held on December 1 each year. In our region we are raising awareness that action is needed Now More than Ever to promote prevention, testing and treatment and ensure that people living with HIV can lead their lives free from stigma and discrimination. You can find out about events happening across the country at www.worldaidsday.org.au.