Clinton family inspires students to make a change during CGI U 2014

The Clinton Global Initiative University 2014 conference, hosted at ASU from March 21 to March 23, united 1,200 students with 695 commitments to action from 270 schools, all 50 states and more than 80 countries under the supervision of the Clinton family and other renowned speakers.

From Friday to Sunday, commitment makers participated in plenary, working and skill sessions moderated by the Clintons, made friends with like-minded individuals and had a chance to pay back the hospitality by engaging in community service.

The largest sum in CGI U history of more than $750,000 in funding was available for CGI U attendees thorough the growing CGI University Network of more than 55 colleges and universities and the Resolution Social Venture Challenge, a competition between aspiring student entrepreneurs with sustainable enterprises.



All participants had to submit a commitment to action before coming to the event. All commitments underwent a careful selection process, keeping the participants in anticipation of the decision since the commitment deadline on Jan.17. Only the commitments which corresponded to three criteria made it to the culmination.

Months of hard work paid off when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped on stage Friday night to welcome everyone to the opening plenary. The event brought foremost minds together for the seventh time, and Clinton said CGI U couldn’t be at a greater campus.

“Being here at Arizona State is terrific, because it in many ways exemplifies the goal and aspirations of CGI U and of so many of you who are participating,” she said.

ASU President Michael Crow followed Clinton’s remarks by sharing the vision for the New American University and characterizing ASU as “not as an abstract institution behind the walls of ivy, but a front line university” committed to economic, social and cultural success.

“We’ll not be successful through exclusion,” he said. “We’ll build our name on who we admit and what we achieve. We’ll be inclusive.”

Moderated by former President Bill Clinton, the opening plenary session kicked off with a discussion of modern world sore points of political, educational, economic and religious life. Renowned speakers shared their views on the U.S. international position, the gender barrier in STEM, stereotypes about Muslim people and Internet freedom.

The event was open to the general public and took place in ASU Gammage at the Tempe campus.

The second day schedule invited participants to get involved in various working and skill sessions divided into five focus areas — education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health, allowing students to choose the one corresponding with their commitment or area of interest.

The working sessions were one of the most important parts of the conference along with being in inspiring environments with like-minded people, students said.

Computer science sophomore Raji Ganesan was honored during one of the sessions for her commitment of developing games for stroke rehabilitation with the help of small touchscreen devices, called Sifteo cubes, to make the process of recovery more engaging and motivating.

It’s important to have conversation, listen to people and to be completely present, as well as to realize that CGI U is not just a conference with abstract conversations, she said.

“You’re here because you’ve taken tangible steps towards something and the expectation is that you will continue to follow through, but it’s not just for this one project,” she said. “It’s an idea. ... You’re committing to this lifestyle, committing to this journey that you’re going to continue to work towards.”

One of the highlights of the second day of CGI U was a plenary discussion dedicated to the future of education, moderated by Mitzi Montoya, vice president and University dean for entrepreneurship and innovation. Guided by the famous Mark Twain quote, “Never let school interfere with your education,” the panelists’ opinions challenged the traditional view of college education.

Nikhil Goyal, an 18-year-old activist and an author of an education reform book, has been looking at successful alternative models of schooling. Questioning the value of the college degree, he advocates for life-long learning based on intrinsic motivation.

“My big premise is that the real world should be the best classroom,” he said. “I think what I’ve learnt is that living and learning really should be inseparable. They should be indistinguishable.”

Pointing out that with $10,000 student loan debt and that 53 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed or unemployed, Goyal said the the value of a college degree is plummeting.

“More employers are starting to realize that just because you went to a prestigious university, it doesn’t mean you can actually accomplish, be confident and actually solve problems,” he said.

Bunker Roy, founder and director of the Barefoot College, a college mainly for women from poor rural areas in 64 countries, where “a learner is a teacher and a teacher is a learner,” said that education needs to be redefined.

Calling the idea that an illiterate person can’t achieve professional heights “a mental problem we need to get rid of,” he shared a staggering story of grandmothers who became solar engineers in only six months of learning through sign language.

“What do we mean by education today?” he said. “Lots of people cannot go to school and college and yet they have so much to contribute. My real education started when I met these extraordinary people who didn’t know how to read and write, but had such tremendous wisdom, compassion, patience (and) passion. This’s really what makes the world go round.”

During a media roundtable with Chelsea Clinton, she said taking a step to make a difference can be difficult not only for young people, but for any ages because of a failure of imagination — being unable to imagine that people can make a difference.

From this perspective, CGI U is the best place to overcome the fear, as more than 6,500 students have already taken that step, she said.

“One of the things that we try hard to help our CGI commitment makers to do is to think about the small steps that will add up to be able to make a big difference,” she said.

Harvard student Shree Bose said that in order to overcome gender and cultural barriers in STEM, women, as well as anyone who is passionate about anything, need courage.

“(The thing is) to be proud of who you are, where you come from, what you believe in,” she said. “And that’s really easy for me to say sitting on the stage, but it’s something that takes a lot of courage.”

Before finishing the second day, Chelsea Clinton announced the winner of the Commitment Challenge — a national online competition, where students receive donations from voters all over the world.

The top four projects receive $1,250, but this year's winning team from Washington University in St. Louis was awarded an additional $5,000 thanks to the founder of and craigsconnects Craig Newman. Their commitment “Stay in Touch” is an application designed to help locate missing relatives and friends in case of a disaster.

The closing plenary session, held in a personal and warm manner, was sprinkled with the jokes of talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, whose alma mater is ASU. The Clintons talked mainly about their family relationships and shared views on life.

“If you really care about things, and show up every day and throw yourself into something you care about, something good will happen,” Bill Clinton said. “Even if you try to do something and you fail, you wind up in a very different and a better place, than if you hadn’t tried.”

Hillary Clinton, recalling how she and her husband both lost some of their political races, spoke of the importance of determination.

“Too many people think somehow if they don’t get what they work for right away, that either they have failed, or it wasn’t meant to be or they give up, because they can’t bear the energy of the disappointment of going on, when in fact that’s often the best time when you learn about yourself and what you’re capable of doing,” Hillary Clinton said.

Chelsea Clinton added that her family has a rule.

“It’s always better to get caught trying,” she said.

After the curtains fell on the official part of the conference, students headed to the CGI U exchange and dinner, where they showcased their projects to each other and the general public.

Sunday saw students taking a trip to downtown Phoenix for the day of action, where they engaged in community service with PHX Renews on a 15-acre vacant lot. They worked on about 10 different projects, planting vegetables and painting murals with personal messages.

“Everybody can serve everywhere, and that diversity is our greatest strength,” Bill Clinton said.

Bill and Chelsea Clinton walked through most of the sites, engaging in conversation and allowing students to take selfies with them. The former president also picked up a shovel to help volunteers dig the trench for the future vegetable beds.

The Clintons were joined by former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton for the welcoming remarks.

Stanton said that ASU had a moment in the sun, being a spectacular host. He also joked that despite being an old fogey, he is inspired by what CGI U and the Clinton family is doing.

“I hope you continue to be inspired,” he said. “That the experiences don’t just go away starting tomorrow, but instead stay with the students for the rest of their lives.”

 Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @KseniaMaryasova

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