This is an excerpt from Ashley’s Engaged Learning blog. Learn more about Engaged Learning here:

SMU students at the Clinton Global Iniative

SMU students at the Clinton Global Initiative

Last weekend, I travelled to St. Louis with five other SMU students to take part in the annual Clinton Global Initiative University.

CGI U, hosted by President Bill Clinton, is a meeting that invites students from over 300 universities and 75 countries to examine pressing issues and learn from renowned public figures. The conference, which was held at Washington University in St. Louis, examined several issues, including environment and climate change, education, peace and human rights, public health, and poverty alleviation. The meeting featured several notables, such as Muhammad Yunus and Stephen Colbert.

I had the opportunity of representing SMU at the conference with five other students – Rahfin, Daiskuke, Timm, Josh and Chibundu. My commitment, which fell under the Peace and Human Rights section, involves The Nari Kit. The Nari Kit is a transitional crisis kit that provides battered women with basic necessities as they transition from critical situations to a secure environment.

Rahfin and Daisuke represented their organization, Green Riba, which is dedicated to delivering zero-interest loans to entrepreneurs in Dallas. Timm and Joshua represented Props Social Ventures, which gives D/FW entrepreneurs the chance to jumpstart their business with student-operated microloans. Chibundu provides students in North Memphis with after-school tutoring and mentoring to help guide them from middle school to high school and then through college and beyond.

With over 1,000 students from all over the world in attendance, the conference was an unparalleled experience.

The opening session

The opening session

The conference included several sessions that focused on the primary issues of conversation. One of the first sessions, called “Getting off the Ground: Stories of Starting Up,” featured a panel of innovators who shared their insights and experiences of launching their own businesses. Speakers at this panel included Chelsea Clinton, Mark S. Wrighton, President Bill Clinton, Kenneth Cole, Jack Dorsey, William Kamkwamba, and Zainab Salbi. The panel of entrepreneurs spoke on how young innovators should accept preliminary failures as part of the process of getting started and shared lessons they learned from their own experiences.

President Clinton made an interesting point when he stated, “Your commitments say a lot about what you care about and what kind of world you want to live in.” Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International, explained that “the way to implement our imagination is to believe in ourselves and believe that we can do it.”

The second session, titled “A Better Future for Girls and Women: Empowering the Next Generation,” featured public figures who discussed ways that today’s youth can support women and girls in having a brighter future. The panelists spoke on how students can work to empower girls and women. Speakers included Chelsea Clinton, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, Hawa Abdi Diblawe, Stephen J. Felice, and Muhammad Yunus. Shabana Basij-Rasikh explained that “it really takes persistence, patience and the belief that you can do something.” Dr. Yunus pointed out that “the power of technology can go far beyond what it was intended for. Technology can transform everything.”

I also attended a working session, titled “The Human Rights Information Revolution,” which was part of the Peace and Human Rights section. The speakers included Sarah Kendzior, Sabrina Hersi Issa, Emily Jacobi, and Alec Ross. The panelists spoke on digital human rights activism and increasing Internet access all over the world. The panel examined how the Internet can be a tool for human rights, as well as a human right. Alec Ross stated, “Any of you can leverage your social and mobile networks to raise a lot of capital for your campaigns.”

The last plenary session, which was called “Solutions without Borders: Working with Unlikely Allies,” examined the necessity for collaboration. Speakers for this panel included Bill Bishop, Will Allen, Claire McCaskill, Sara Minkara, and Brendan Tuohey. The panelists spoke on how to form effective partnerships, and the significance of cooperation over conflict. Senator McCaskill said, “I know you’re all going to be the shining stars leading this country.”

Jada Pinkett-Smith

Jada Pinkett-Smith

I attended another working session called “Modern Day Slavery: How do we end human trafficking?” The panel featured Alex Wagner, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Jeannette Richardson-Baars, and Dan Viederman. The panelists spoke on the major issues related to trafficking and how CGI U representatives can support the fight against trafficking. Jada Pinkett-Smith spoke about the new Be Safe application that she is involved with, and stated, “We’re hoping the Be Safe app will become the new 911.”

The closing conversation was certainly the highlight of the night – with speakers President Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert. Colbert’s talk doubled as a taping for his show, and the excitement in the room was beyond palpable. The closing conversation added a lighthearted touch to the conference, reminding students that commitments should be exciting. President Clinton explained, “We’re all tied together. We live in an interdependent world.” When asked about CGI U, President Clinton said, “The great thing about Clinton Global is that it has created a global network for giving.”

After the closing conversation, I headed to office hours with Gary White, co-founder of White spoke on the initial struggles of his now famed nonprofit venture, and gave us advice on how we can utilize resources around us to bring our commitments to fruition.

After office hours, I made my way to a working session with Chelsea Clinton for Women and Girls related commitments. The working session not only served as an avenue to network with like-minded students, but also gave us insight on how we can continue working to support women and girls. The weekend concluded with a service project with Gateway STEM High School. The morning kicked off with a talk from President Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and the principal, Dr. Beth Bender, who all spoke on the importance of giving back. CGI U students worked on various restorative projects around the school. President Clinton closed out the weekend saying, “If you want a future of shared prosperity, everyone has got to be a part of it.”

CGI U was certainly an unparalleled experience. From the valuable connections I made to hearing the inspiring words of today’s leaders, I came back from CGI U more inspired than ever. CGI U isn’t just a place to discuss ideas, it’s a place where today’s youth takes concrete steps towards creating a better future.