This spring, NLC President Emily and NLC Vice President Rylee were invited to attend the Clinton Global Initiatives University (Class of 2015) in Miami, Florida. CGI U hosts a meeting that brings together students, topic experts, university representatives, and humanitarian celebrities to discuss and develop innovation solutions to the disparities and challenges that we recognize in the world around us and that we are dedicated to addressing. Students are selected according to commitments to confront global challenges in one of five focus areas: Education, Environment and Climate Change, Poverty Alleviation, Peace and Human Rights, and Public Health. We wanted to share with you our experience learning from fellow student leaders as well as those who once started out in our shoes, but who now have Professor at Harvard or Nobel Laureate beside their name because they’ve carried through with their commitments and done their parts to change the world. It’s on us, our generation of student leaders, to learn their lessons, pick up where they left off, and address the pressing global challenges of our time.
With 1,000 students and more than 80 countries represented in its student body, the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) cultivated a unique networking experience, as students from all over the world collaborated on addressing a variety of global issues. The Student Networking Event was the opening session where I met two students focused on improving services for the hearing impaired in Hong Kong and a woman who is focused on programs that help Haitian women enroll in college. I also experienced a rarity in which people around me were truly passionate about their global commitment and taking action to better conditions in the world we live in. My commitment is called Project ID Refugee (PIDR) and focuses on addressing the needs of refugees in the Central African Republic who have been displaced as a result of the ongoing conflict. After talking with people about my commitment, I received positive feedback and was able to connect with peers who have similar interests and want to continue working together to help refugees in Africa.
The opening plenary session titled, “Fast Forward: Accelerating Opportunity for All” featured a discussion moderated by former president Bill Clinton and an impressive panel including actress America Ferrera, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karmen, Paul Lorem, a student at Yale University who was orphaned in Africa, and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. While each panelist had a unique experience to contribute to the discussion, a quote that resonates with me personally was Surgeon General Murthy’s prescription for success, which he said is passion and perseverance. As students and advocates for the pressing global issues we face today, our passion is what will ignite us to pursue combating these problems and our perseverance is what will carry us through the obstacles we must overcome for social justice and addressing the pressing issues of our generation.
The next morning we reported back to the University for work sessions and skill sessions— sessions designed to get us talking about specific issues of highest priority in our focus areas and to teach us the skills we would need, such as monitoring and evaluation and strengthening organizational capacity, to carry out our commitments to address these issues effectively. For example, my commitment, called “Physician to a Community,” falls under the focus area of public health. Inspired by the desperately poor access to healthcare that people within rural regions of my own state face, I’ve designed a program that would provide public health services to the people of Appalachia and narrow the physician shortage in the region. With the plight of the Appalachian people and other medically under-served groups in mind, I hurried off to the public health work sessions to see what I could learn from others’ efforts to confront low access and high morbidity in under-served areas of the world.
Our work session panelists, ranging from NGO founders and a leading consultant for Sesame Street international productions to students like us who were “graduates” of CGI U, led us through the most pressing global health challenges emerging today. We discussed the rise of non-communicable diseases and the challenges of promoting health among child populations around the world. They all shared the inventive programs that they had devised to confront these issues, and they described the barriers they had faced along the way and those still yet to be overcome. They emphasized the same passion and perseverance that Surgeon General Murthy had spoken of and encouraged our civic efficacy as a generation— the problems we were convened together to address were not insurmountable, but they would require innovation, and that’s where they saw our generation coming in.
We can and will make a change. We can and will empower the social fabric of the communities we seek to support. Except here, the panelists cautioned us. We could right the path of our global future, starting today, but our compassion and our formal education are not enough to prepare us to meet the needs of the people we hope to help. Especially in global projects, faced with new cultures, new environments, new complex webs of realities and determinants, we need to be prepared to take all of these new factors into account but also humbly recognize our inability to do so. Rather, our local partners should be given great authority to guide the success of global projects. We’re not the only ones on our Earth working to make the world a better place, and local allies will best be able to let us know when our jobs are appropriately and sustainably done. The panelists’ advice was sage and genuine, and we truly felt that these mentors were as committed to all of our projects as we were.
The message of humility in the face of global development and the need for lifelong learning appeared again throughout the day, most notably in the lecture held by the exuberant Dr. Hans Rosling, founder of the Gapminder Foundation. He taught us that aid could work—did work!— and that we should use data to update our global thinking rather than conduct our work based on preconceived… Well, I can’t do this conversation justice worthy of Dr. Rosling. You just need to see this for yourself:
During our closing conversation that evening, Bill Clinton, Dr. Paul Farmer, and members of the band Pussy Riot made up the most strangely and unexpectedly compelling panel on activism and prisoners’ rights any of us could have imagined (I’ll admit my bias though— I’m a huge fan of Dr. Farmer, look up his work with Partners in Health!). However, that wasn’t even the best surprise of the night.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared on stage with Chelsea Clinton, and together the pair exuded an unimaginable grace. The media had lined up to capture it on camera, and I was glad that so many newscasters were there to capture her announcement. No, it wasn’t a presidential bid, but it was just as, if not more, important. She announced a new data collaborative called No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project, which she and Chelsea, along with Melinda Gates, had developed. She explained that this project pooled and recruited data from all corners of the globe about women’s rights, health, education, and more. They had analyzed the data to gauge the progress that we’ve made in allowing women and girls to “have the opportunity to participate fully in all aspects of life” and to determine the areas in which we’re not there yet. Where are there still ceilings for women in this world? Where can women not hold the same jobs as men? Where does the belief that wife beating is justified still exist? Where do women achieve basic education in the sciences? Over time, how have all of these situations for women and girls improved? Despite the data being still incomplete, the data is eye-opening and helps us to understand exactly where we stand on women’s rights today. Explore for yourself the data that only begins to help us appreciate how far we’ve come and shows us how much further we still have to go: http://noceilings.org
Finally, a Day of action allowed us to work together to make a big difference for the Miami community. The attendees worked to refurbish a local underprivileged elementary school. We repainted the classrooms, rebuilt the playground facilities, and worked to bring joy to the education of the children in the community. We all relished the opportunity to translate days of talking about action into our first real efforts and actions as CGI U graduates.
Next year, represent NSCS and your University at CGI U! What challenge do you see in the world that needs to be addressed (and if you’re not sure, the No Ceilings Project would be a great place to start to find out!)? What must be done? What can you do about it, and what innovation can you bring to the field? Develop your own Commitment to Action and take on global challenges in the name of human rights for all members of our global community. Be as empowered and inspired as we were by the mentorship of the global aid workers and humanitarians we met there— both the experienced Nobel Laureates and the fellow students who will grow with us as the new generation of global leaders. Don’t miss your chance to learn from them all at this ultimate University next year. Apply soon, here: http://www.cgiu.org.