By Evan Deutsch
The Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) hosted its seventh annual meeting from March 21-23, 2014 at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Directed by President Bill Clinton, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and Chelsea Clinton, the conference brought together more than 1,100 student leaders who collectively made nearly 700 Commitments to Action in CGI U’s focus areas of education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
This year, six promising Middlebury College students had the opportunity to attend the CGI U meeting with the support of Community Engagement and the Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The Midd attendees included Daniela Barajas ’14.5, Priscilla Makundi ’16, Roksana Gabidullina ’16, Rabeya Jawaid ’16, Martin Naunov ’17, and James Sun ’17. Armel Nibasumba ’16, recipient of Middlebury’s Davis Project for Peace prize, also attended the conference for a second time.
Throughout the action-packed three days, students attended plenary sessions, working sessions, and other events covering topics across CGI U’s five focus areas. A number of youth organizations, topic experts, and even celebrities joined students at CGI U. Beyond scheduled events, all attendees were able to network with peers, build skills, and identify potential partnerships.
Martin Naunov, a freshman from Macedonia involved in the Middlebury Stop Traffick organization, expressed enthusiasm about the connections he made at CGI U. “The conference allowed me to meet people who are interested in the politics of the Balkan, establishing networks needed for a career I hope to pursue, straddling the highest levels of international relations and politics of Macedonia,” he explained.
Daniela Barajas ’14.5 and Priscilla Makundi ’16 echoed Martin’s reflections. “The connections that we made with undergraduate and graduate students as well as professionals will definitely be very valuable as we seek advice in the development and implementation of our project,” the young women explained. The conference provided them with “a firm foundation to take off and excel” with their women’s entrepreneurship training project in Arusha, Tanzania.
Students at CGI U also appreciated the perspectives that lent a healthy alternative to overused leadership rhetoric. For example, CSE Fellow Rabeya Jawaid ’16 shared her favorite lesson from the weekend from Reeya Roy, CEO of the Mastercard Foundation: “Leadership begins in quietness. Leadership happens when you are alone in your room at college editing a video when everyone else is at a party, when you organize a meeting and drag people to it. It is not about being on stage, it is not about being under a bright light. It is about shining light on critical issues that the world is facing.”
CSE Platforms for Hope 2013 summer grant recipient Roksana Gabidullina ’16 benefitted from the thought-provoking questions posed at the conference. “What should I do? How should I tackle the problem I wanted to solve? Does Platforms for Hope want to use a new model or continue a model that was proven to work?” she asked herself. Gabidullina noted that, ultimately, CGI U instilled in her confidence and determination. “The energy of the participants and the support from them electrified me.”
James Sun ’17 approached the CGI U conference from a slightly different angle. While he attended inspiring addresses and workshops, he focused primarily on the CGI U Social Ventures Challenge, a pitching competition to win a spot as a Resolution Fellow. Sun was selected to present his project, Empower with Code, and ultimately earned a spot as a Fellow. The process also informed Sun on potential improvements to his project. “As I discussed Empower with Code with [the] judges, I realized that at $200-$250 per student, my costs were in fact not as scalable as I had previously imagined,” he explained. “This prompted me to find new ways to provide technology to low-income youth without reducing the quality of the technology that’s going to empower them post-program.”
The final day of the conference engaged attendees in a Day of Action in the local community. The closing plenary featured inspirational words from President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Phoenix, AZ Mayor Greg Stanton, former U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and former astronaut Mark Kelly. President Clinton challenged the audience, reminding everyone that “Good things always happen to those of us who work relentlessly at something.” Indeed, CGI U attendees are working relentlessly at a lot of things. We look forward to seeing the good things that come of it.