At Clinton Global Initiative University, A Laboratory for the Big Ideas

GW student social entrepreneurs bring commitments to local and global development to annual conference.

Mariam Adil (far right) onstage at conference with President Bill Clinton and other commitment makers. (Photo courtesy CGI U)
Mariam Adil (far right) onstage at conference's opening plenary meeting with President Bill Clinton and other commitment makers. (Photo courtesy CGI U)
March 16, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

A graduate student in the George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, Ms. Adil was in Miami as part of this year’s Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) held March 6-8 at the University of Miami. More than 1,000 students, representing more than 300 schools and over 75 countries, were there with what the initiative calls “Commitments to Action”: new, specific and measurable plans to address pressing challenges facing communities around the world.

The annual event has been held since 2008 at college campuses across the country. GW hosted in 2012, and this year had 36 commitment makers—one of the highest such numbers in the nation. Despite travel made difficult by winter storms, 32 GW students were able to attend.

Ms. Adil’s commitment is called GRID: Gaming Revolution for International Development. GRID develops computer games with a social impact or training focus. One game, Randomania, was used by the World Bank to monitor and evaluate projects, while another, Stereowiped, will help players identify and break different kinds of stereotypes.

Thanks to the progress her commitment has made since her attendance at last year’s CGI U, Ms. Adil was chosen, along with only four other students, to represent her project onstage with President Clinton at CGI U’s opening plenary.

That much, she said, she had already known would be “awesome.”

“But what I didn’t realize was just how inspired I would be by my fellow commitment-makers,” she said.

Ibrahima Kane, a graduate student in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, was another student to be highlighted in the plenary and one such inspiring peer. In Dr. Kane’s home country of Senegal, more than 40 percent of women give birth at home with the help of traditional midwives. Postpartum bleeding is a major cause of maternal mortality. With his project, No Woman Left Behind, Dr. Kane plans to create a structure of education and distribution that will teach these midwives to use misoprostol—a cheap, effective and durable medication classified as “essential” by the World Health Organization—to help save their charges’ lives.

CGI U, he said, “was incredible.”

“There were young leaders there from all around the world,” he said. “Everywhere you turned you saw someone with a different experience, a different project, a different idea—getting together trying to make the world a better place.”

The students and their projects were shepherded to CGI U with the help of GWupstart Social Innovation Lab, GW’s hub for social entrepreneurship training, mentoring and funding.

“CGI U is important for three reasons: framework, inspiration and support,” said Melanie Fedri, GWupstart coordinator, who also attended. “It gives students an explicit structure for developing projects, brings them together to network with each other and with global leaders and encourages universities to directly support students’ commitments. So far this year, GW has awarded $13,000 through the Commitment Maker Challenge, which provides travel assistance and seed funding.”

Networking at CGI U is no minor cheese-and-crackers affair. Besides being hosted by President Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Chelsea Clinton, this year’s conference boasted attendees like Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkol Karman, activist and actress America Ferrera and University of Miami President Donna Shalala, former U.S. secretary for health and human services, among many others.

First-time attendee Yeshwant Chillakaru won a highly competitive fellowship from The Resolution Project, a nonprofit organization that funds college students’ social entrepreneurship projects in their very early stages. His project—a mapping app for runners that will, with every mile logged, raise funds for mentor programs for at-risk students—comes from his own experience. As a high school runner, he used to volunteer at a local elementary school.

“They were brilliant kids, but they grew up in an environment where they didn’t have a lot of opportunities,” Mr. Chillakaru said. He wanted to give students those opportunities, particularly after school. “CGI U and the Resolution Project helped me figure out how to do that, how to focus my idea and get it on paper and figure out the next steps.”

For Ms. Adil, CGI U was an adrenaline shot that will carry her and GRID through the next stage in its evolution. She currently plans to collaborate with local nonprofit For Love of Children (FLOC) to create Stereowiped workshops that will help students who have dropped out of school prepare for re-entry.

“[The excitement] doesn’t end the day you leave,” Ms. Adil said. “You’re on this crazy high when you come back—you think, OK, I want to change the world. It’s so contagious.”