Clintons, Shalala Inspire CGI U Students to ‘Give Flight to the Possible’

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Clintons, Shalala Inspire CGI U Students to ‘Give Flight to the Possible’

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
More than 1,100 students from 80 countries and 200 universities join innovators, thought-leaders, and civically engaged celebrities for three days of sessions, networking, and service.

Bottles may not seem essential to improving the lives of the impoverished, but when it comes to the multi-function urn being developed by three University of Miami students, they could provide residents of one African nation both clean drinking water and renewable energy.

With a miniature filtration system, photovoltaic panels, LED lights, and a magnetic inductor, the so-called Oasys bottle now being designed by Owen Berry, Kevin Weaver, and Jules Romier from the UM School of Architecture will remove impurities from water and furnish up to four hours of light for some residents of Nigeria. While these three students seem the type destined to lead the health care, finance, or educational sectors of tomorrow, there are far too many whose talents are impeded by lack of opportunity.

“Accelerating Opportunity for All” was the topic of discussion Friday evening, as the 2015 Clinton Global Initiative University got underway at the UM’s BankUnited Center with an opening plenary session moderated by the former U.S. president who established the annual conference in 2007 to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world.

“The empowering comes from doing what you can,” President Clinton told students.

He was introduced by his daughter, Chelsea, who told students that she wanted CGI U to be “as rich an experience” for them as possible. Earlier in the day, the former first daughter, who now serves as vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, judged a CGI U Code-a-thon. She praised UM’s Butler Center for Volunteer Service and Leadership Development for being a leader in social entrepreneurship and problem-solving for sustainable development.

More than 1,100 students from 80 countries and 200 universities were set to join innovators, thought-leaders, and civically engaged celebrities for three days of sessions, networking, and service aimed at making a difference in CGI U’s five focus areas: Education, Environment and Climate Change, Peace and Human Rights, Poverty Alleviation, and Public Health.

And during the opening plenary, the students got just the kind of advice they were seeking from four people who know about breaking barriers that impede success: U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who as a Harvard freshman, started an NGO to address the problem of HIV and AIDS in his native India; actress and activist America Ferrera, who Time magazine named one of 2007’s most influential artists and entertainers, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni journalist and politician who co-founded Women Journalists Without Chains, and Yale University student Paul Lorem, an orphan who grew up in a South Sudanese refugee camp.

Murthy, the youngest surgeon general is U.S. history and the first of Indian descent, reminded students about the importance of being good citizens—a lesson taught to him by his parents. Murthy urged students to “step up, say something, and take action” to correct problems they identify, adding that the most important ingredients for success are “passion and perseverance.”

President Clinton noted the “astonishing” accomplishments of Murthy and the other panelists, most notably that “they have rendered public service as private citizens.”

The panelists’ insights came after UM President Donna E. Shalala, who was Clinton’s U.S. secretary of health and human services for eight years, gave the students some guidance of her own.

Noting the hundreds of Commitments to Action—measurable plans to address global challenges—blossomed out of the first CGI U meeting UM hosted in 2010, Shalala told the students that such initiative “starts with the desire to make a difference.”

“Next comes the idea: ‘I can do this.’ Then comes the a-ha moment: ‘I will do this,’ ” she said. “You’ve all had it. That’s why you’re here. You’re here to give flight to the possible…and perhaps even to the impossible. What you set in motion here will soar if you not only work hard but if you work hard together.”

President Clinton recognized four CGI U students for their Commitments to Action, including Kimberly Roland, a graduate student at Arizona State University who started a school pantry program aimed at reducing child hunger in rural parts of northern Arizona.

Guerdiana Thelomar, a UM senior double majoring in human and social development and visual journalism, sat among the hundreds in attendance and took Shalala’s remarks to heart. The 22-year-old attended last year’s CGI U at Arizona State University, unveiling her idea for a summer camp in Saint Marc, Haiti, that inspired youth through leadership and team building exercises and strategy sessions to map out plans for their success.

Thelomar, whose parents were born in the Haitian seaport village, considered the camp a success, but felt it could be improved. For the 2015 CGI U, she augmented her Commitment to Action with a photography component, calling it Gade Li, which in Haitian Creole means “Look at this.” Camp participants will use disposable and digital cameras to document pressing problems in their community. Thelomar is not certain yet what the youths will see through their lenses, but she said Saint Marc’s polluted coastline and lack of opportunities for young people are among the possibilities. Their pictures will be displayed in Saint Marc in hopes of raising awareness and spurring people to action.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with youth to help them become their own change agents and to realize that they have the potential and resources to help themselves,” said Thelomar.

She hopes to operate the camp this summer and has already received $1,000 in funding for it. It is one of the 13 Commitments to Action—from providing Ugandans with affordable eye glasses, to building low-cost, energy-efficient computers for Detroit high schoolers, to convincing fellow students to give up bottled water—that are receiving UM seed funding at the 2015 CGI U.

Perhaps inspired by the passion and worldview of President Shalala, eight of the Commitments to Action chosen to share $10,000 provided by UM address public health issues. The grants range from $500 to $1,250 per project.

The Commitments to Action are a hallmark of CGI U, which since its inaugural meeting has generated more than 4,800 commitments from thousands of University students to address challenges in the five focus areas.

UM hosted the third CGI U in April 2010, and is the first university to host two CGI Us. Over the years, 309 UM students have made or partnered on 177 Commitments to Action.

In all, this year’s CGI U has more than $900,000 available through the CGI University Network, the Resolution Project Social Venture Challenge, and other opportunities to help select CGI U students turn their ideas into action.