On April 5, more than 1,000 college and graduate students from 50 states and six continents will convene at Washington University in St. Louis for the sixth annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). Students will meet with President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton to share their commitments to action to address the most pressing challenges facing their campuses, communities, and the world, including education, environment and climate change, human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.
In a conversation with President Clinton this morning, he described the program. Students will meet with world leaders, as well as celebrities who represent NGOs and causes, present their commitments to funders, who will provide more than $400,000 in seed funding in addition to mentoring, and work together on a “done-in-a-day” project installing a solar energy system in a Gateway STEM High School in St. Louis. “We chose this particular school to work with because it’s focused on raising the level of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) knowledge among students who would have been left behind,” Clinton explained. STEM education is widely recognized for preparing students for today’s technology-oriented job market.
During the interview, I asked President Clinton if the CGI U experience stemmed in part from his meeting President John F. Kennedy in 1963 as a 16-year-old delegate to the American Legion Boys Nation. “Very much. Once you’re around leaders, you can imagine becoming one," Clinton said. "I want the students to imagine that they can have influence. That they can live a life that has integrity and impact.”
Clinton commented on “how deeply these kids believe when they leave CGI U” and expressed his wish that their commitment to serve “should be integrated into their way of living for the rest of their lives.”
Afshin Khan’s lifetime commitment is quite certain. She is launching a program this summer to teach women in Pakistan how to sew in order to fund education for themselves and their children. A graduate student at Emory University studying public health, Khan launched her project to focus on women who are victims of domestic violence—a problem she says is prevalent. “This is about empowerment and increasing the literacy rate,” says Khan, who is partnering with the Khyber Welfare Organization, an NGO in the outskirts of Karachi. She is joined by fellow Emory students Harisha Kadali and Annum Shaikh.
"I know what’s possible. I grew up in an area where education is absolutely forbidden for girls and boys alike. I was told ‘you can’t do it. It’s not possible,'" Khan says. "Yet, I’ve done it every step of the way.”
Khan’s mother made it possible for her to get an education. “Mom pushed against everything. It’s changed me. It’s given me a voice to talk for people who have no rights. I’m the first person from my community to step inside a school. It’s an honor and a shame. I’d like to see that change in every person. Education is empowering. You know what’s right and what’s wrong and what’s your right.” Her plan is to study medicine and work in complex humanitarian settings where there is chaos as a result of nature—earthquakes and floods—or political instability.
Swetha Kotamraju was among four sophomores at Rice University who created Babymetrix. Their invention was inspired by their research regarding malnutrition in babies in developing countries, its irreversible long-term damage, and the benefits of intervention during the first 18 months of life. Kotamraju and her friends also understood that to diagnose malnutrition, it’s important to detect stunting and wasting by monitoring length, weight, and head circumference. So they invented a low-cost, lightweight, portable, and integrated device to take the three measurements. They created a tarp and wood-based prototype called Babymetrix. It cost less than $40.
At CGI U, Kotamraju and her team seek to recruit—or raise the funds to hire—a third-party engineering or design firm to build a professional prototype and raise funds to develop 30 units. Next, they'll field-test Babymetrix in India. With feedback and data, the students plan to improve the design, field-test it again at Texas Medical Center, and then roll out Babymetrix in Malawi, where childhood malnutrition is prevalent. Babymetrix is already a semi-finalist for the $100,000 seed funding prize that comes with the Resolution Social Venture Challenge at CGI U. The winner will be announced April 7. The Rice students look forward to CGI U for many reasons, including to meet NGOs that have implemented similar technologies in developing countries.
Clinton ended this morning’s conversation with an update about a commitment that I wrote about last year. In 2010, a group of students at Vanderbilt University committed to help reduce recidivism rates by working in partnership with Dismas House, a halfway house in Nashville. The students developed Triple Thread, a job-training and employment program for the production of quality custom T-shirts. By emphasizing new job skills such as sales, inventory management, product development, problem-solving, and effective business practices, Triple Thread committed to creating a sustainable solution to the reluctance of employers in hiring ex-offenders.
Since launching in September 2010, Triple Thread has provided employment and job training to more than 35 Dismas House residents, printed more than 30,000 shirts, received orders from St. Louis to Boston, and raised more than $65,000 in capital from the Walmart Foundation, Corrections Corporation of America, the Frist Foundation, DoSomething.org, and many others. They have formed a board of prominent business leaders in Nashville to guide their future growth. A $30,000 grant has empowered them to purchase equipment, increase efficiency, lower prices, and increase employment capacity.
While acknowledging how much the students might enjoy meeting him, Clinton also noted during our call, “It’s probably more inspiring for them to be around each other.”
[Photo by Adam Schultz / Clinton Global Initiative]