CGI U 2015 at University of Miami

An update from Colton Donica, SMU ’15, Human Rights and Political Science major. Colton and four other SMU students, attended the Clinton Global Initiative University 2015 Annual Meeting with held at the University of Miami in Miami, Fl, Mar 6-8, 2015.

SMU students at CGI U 2015 – Colton Donica, Hena Rafiq, Priya Chowdhary, Asia Rodgers

The Clinton Global Initiative is a great way to transform an idea into a sustainable action plan. During the Clinton Global Initiative University Conference in Miami, I talked to students from all over the world about my project, as well as ways to improve it. I also had the chance to learn about the hundreds of other student projects that are sponsored by the Clinton Foundation. Whether I am reflecting about the time I spent in lectures, workshops, or networking events at the 2015 CGI U Conference, I have nothing but positive memories to draw from.

My CGI U project works with LGBTQ asylum seekers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area to ensure that all people in Texas, gay or straight, have access to resources such as health care. CGI U put me in contact with a handful of other students that were also interested in working with the LGBTQ community before, during, and after the CGI U Conference in Miami. At the 2015 Conference it was exhilarating to be in the same room as hundreds of other student activists that are just as passionate as me about promoting human rights and helping others. With the help from my CGI U mentor, as well as from all of my friends that I made at the CGI U Conference, I am prepared to successfully carry out my CGI U project.

After seeing how helpful CGI U has been with my project, I encourage anyone else to apply to CGI U that has a world changing idea. CGI U works with students that are passionate about promoting human rights such as education, gender equality, and any issue that aims to make a positive change in the world. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions at all about CGI U or my experiences with the Clinton Foundation.

View more about CGI U at SMU

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The Moth Who Shot for the Moon: One Transguy’s Search for Closure.

Shim, Jaime 2An update from Jaime Shim, SMU ’17, who is writing a graphic novel memoir in the Korean “webtoon” comic style.



whiteandredback logo

I was playing with the scrolling bar, jerking the Engaged Learning logo about. The red label with white spikes flew up at a flick of my fingers; flew down. I was clicking through the SMU digital repository, looking at the collection of completed creative projects and reading their abstracts and introductions. What did those before me do their projects for? What did they hope to gain? What was their purpose? Up and down. The sides of the logo shimmered—like a twinkling star, and as a grateful recipient of “SMU’s most prestigious student engagement award,” as the EL homepage declared, I was supposed to be one of the stars of the school.

Looked at another way, and in a different mood, the logo was something else in the night sky. A moth fluttering flimsy wings, disoriented by light pollution, and drawn away from the guiding moon to circle the nearest streetlamp. I saw no stars, plenty of lost moths, during my late night walks through the heart of Seoul in the latter part of my high school days, chasing my dysphoria. I never had any destination in mind. Wandering off sidewalks, off roads, I just went. Looking back, I still don’t know what I wanted more out of those trips: to get away, or to find something. I may have thought, that if I just wandered, I was bound to stumble upon my direction.

When I talked to my parents about applying to Engaged Learning, they opposed. I was supposed to be focused on preparing for Law School, studying for the LSAT, keeping my GPA up. This would be a distraction. I had to do well in political science because that was related to my career course and, as an international student who wasn’t eligible for most internships or jobs, the numbers were all that mattered. I had thought that Engaged Learning might fill the out-of-the-classroom section of my résumé, and argued so; they exploded that creative projects would mean nothing to Law School admissions boards. I told them that the project would mean something to me. That gave them pause, for a moment. In the end, they remained convinced that the time investment would not be worth it.

When I got accepted, they expressed relief. Thrilled to my satisfied, they raved that this would bolster my résumé and that Law Schools would be pleased to take such a well-rounded applicant. It was an incredible turnabout from what they had said before, and I could tell that they still held to their previous concerns, at least in part. I also knew that they were trying to be supportive. My parents had always told me that they would support me in everything—they didn’t always show it, but they always said it. What they found the hardest to support, or even accept, was my being trans; what they found the easiest was where I conformed, well within their upper middle class white collar professional worldview, in career choice.

I have always had an answer ready for that vapid question: What do you want to be? Despite the open wording, it was clear, even to my first grade self, that I was being asked about my career aspirations. I remember meeting my mother’s PhD students and giving them my reply: an English professor. It’s stayed with me how one of them laughed, and how he said that when he was a kid my age, all he wanted to be was a man. He said he thought my choice was impressive. I thought his choice was stupid. It wasn’t until almost a decade later, when I found out about myself, that I reconsidered and, in retrospect, felt that his choice had something to it. That was also the time when I changed the career choice that I had held onto my whole conscious life and switched to wanting to be a lawyer.

My change to wanting to be a lawyer wasn’t due to my change in gender identity, but it was related. Struggling with gender dysphoria, trying to deal with my parents’ rejection of me and convinced that all my relationships were doomed, feeling freakish, I thought that at the very least no one would be able to push me down if I became a successful lawyer. If I had to live unloved and abandoned, at least I would be able to support myself, and in some comfort. I knew, of course, that doing well on the notorious LSAT and going through the storied terror of Law School would not be easy, but they were possible. Being a lawyer was something that was clearly possible; not like transitioning. I had to take what I could get.

I thought that I would be able to see the stars at SMU. Compared to Seoul, Dallas felt so small, with less bustle and less activity, with clearer skies. But I still couldn’t. It didn’t and doesn’t matter now, as I don’t go on night walks much anymore. I’m not dysphoric anymore. The SMU campus is where I started living as a guy, where I started transitioning. There’s no need for escape, for some kind of solution, or whatever it may have been that I sought on my night walks through Seoul. My parents used to keep me from going, saying that walking about the city after sundown was dangerous for a girl like me. Now, they don’t tell me off, even though they know that I still go out walking at midnight, just for a breath of air. Part of it is because they believe that it is safe on the SMU campus and part of it is that they think that, as a guy, I am not so vulnerable to attack; but most of it is because they know they can’t stop me anyway. I’m grateful for the freedom. I tell them, in appreciation, that I stay on the main road, which is the truth, and that I’m always well within the streetlamps lighting my way.

One of the hypotheses about why moths circle around artificial lights is that they are confused; they’re flying to the moon, using it for navigation, but they never expect to reach it. Applying for Engaged Learning, preparing to look back at the darkest period of my life, I thought that I was trying to find closure. As soon as I was accepted and I began outlining seriously, I knew I was looking for something I already had; and not something that I had found, through a moment of epiphany, but something that I had made for myself. I had made my closure in an incremental process, through the simple trick of staying in the present with the inexorable onward drive of daily life, in the way that transitioning is never a simple switch but a patient evolution.

I take what I get—all human beings take what they can get—and I’m happy and at peace with my body now, taking into account that hormone therapy is still working on me and that I have concrete plans for surgery in the future. I enjoy living as a guy in the way that I enjoy breathing the cool fresh air on my occasional night walks still. I love that virtually nobody knows that I am trans outside the select few friends whom I have seen fit to trust. And I know that I’m privileged, not just in my educational and financial status and not just in the level of love and support my parents give me, but in that I can pass as a normal cisgender male. There was a time, not too long ago, when my status today seemed as out of reach and out of sight to me as the stars in the night sky—My hope for my Engaged Learning project is that it let the trans kids who come after me know, that that is far from true.

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Spring is in the Air (Update 3/22/15)

McPherson 2 - editedAn update from Hadley McPherson, SMU ‘15, who placed motion-activated cameras in the Trinity River Forest and photographed the movement of wild animals to calculate population sizes and identify individual animals.


Lucy: This camera seems to be damaged so I am attempting to repair it. This camera did not capture any photos.

Snoopy: As far as I can tell this camera has been stolen so no bridge data will be available.

Woodstock: This camera caught approximately 20,000 pictures of grass blowing in the wind. I’m still sifting through all the photos and will post any of my findings.

Charlie: Camera Charlie is the only camera that yielded a plethora of animals sightings. Please browse through my photos by species and scroll to the end to see the newest additions.

I captured 26 photos of bobcats.

Adapted from Hadley’s blog site:

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Trinity Tracks

McPherson 2 - editedAn update from Hadley McPherson, SMU ‘15, who placed motion-activated cameras in the Trinity River Forest and photographed the movement of wild animals to calculate population sizes and identify individual animals.

In cooperation with both the Trinity River Audubon Center and Groundwork Dallas, my research uses motion sensing camera traps to obtain a census of the mammals living in the Great Trinity Forest and to accumulate data regarding their respective niches in the face of encroaching urban development. This research is essential to habitat restoration efforts by quantifying the value of the Trinity River Forest both ecologically and economically.

In the long-term, this ongoing research aims to create a comparison of habitats up and downstream to assess the possible existence of a wildlife corridor through Dallas and to quantify the ecological impact of development by examining patterns in migration and population densities.

Camera traps offer an effective tool for conducting inventories of larger, elusive mammals that are often only reported as rare chance encounters. Dr. Michael Tewes, an expert on the study of wild cat species, was brought to Dallas for consultation and to give a lecture on his camera trapping techniques. Following his direction, four Moultrie cameras were placed at four different sites at the Audubon Center. The cameras are named: Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie, and Woodstock.

Check out pictures and more

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Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

An update from Katelyn Gough in Jordan researching the Syrian refugee crisis within the context of Jordanian security and international affairs.

“The rebellions control the area my family lives. It’s very difficult to live there.

Protected? No. They can shell it. Explosive bottles, heavy shelling. Almost every day.

Sometimes I wish I had stayed. And sometimes, no.”

I recently spent my first two days in the Zaatari refugee camp near al Mafraq, a short 45-minute drive from downtown Amman. Zaatari is home now to 81,000 Syrians, many from the Daraa area that extends down to just above the Jordanian border north of the camp. As this number has fluctuated since Syrians began fleeing at the start of the revolution in 2011, it hit its high of more than 400,000 refugees in the camp and has since settled out at the current figure. These numbers do not include the second camp of Azraq to the east, nor the large population of Syrians who have attempted to integrate into Jordanian towns, including the capital city of Amman.

In a country whose history is largely dominated by significant refugee influxes, one said to me that the Syrian migration is “history repeating itself.”

I spoke with many refugees over my two days there—from young children to elderly grandparents—and the realities they faced in Syria and the realities they face in the camp are unforgettable. More importantly, their resilience was what I found most astounding.

I heard stories of murdered family members, stories of surviving bullet wounds from a sniper attack, stories of leaving university in Syria to save one’s own life and flee.

gough, katelyn

Zaatari Refugee Camp, Jordan

These stories were accompanied by the absolute exuberance of the children living in the camp. They would see me walking between the tents with my camera and suddenly run up in front of me, unannounced, and immediately begin posing. I was to take their photo so they could see it on the camera in the clear colors—it was a universal game for all of them, more so than I have ever found in previous journalism projects involving younger ones.

As I spent time in the camp interviewing and meeting with people—especially the older youth, whose bridge from youth to adulthood is infinitely complicated by the fact of displacement—I experienced hospitality unlike ever before. Many whom I spoke with and questioned thanked me for the interviews, giving me freshly baked bread, desert treats from their shop, and welcoming me into their tents and aluminum caravans for tea and juice. My guide to the camp even hosted myself and my translator for lunch with his family not one day, but two—a family network with all ready too little to eat was preparing for us their favorite meals typically reserved for the best of celebrations, featuring chicken and beef and requiring several hours’ preparation.

It is remedying the stories of loss, deprivation and attack with the undying generosity that they could not afford by gave anyway that takes a true look into the complicated and interwoven workings of migration and displacement reality in a culture so selfless and sacrificing.

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I think your shoes are not right

 Taken from

gabriellaOn Sunday I had a great opportunity to go to an eco-tourism resort and spa near the GREAT WALL OF FREAKING CHINA. Yes, I’ve been before, but its still really really cool.

The spa is called The Brickyard and there is a restaurant nearby owned by the same people called is the Schoolhouse at MuTianYu (the facility used to be the village schoolhouse). I heard about this place and naturally put on my important business lady internet facade and wrote a very official email, to which I was offered free transportation (an hour and a half away from the city), a tour, and lunch! The car was departing at 9:00am, which was no big deal because I wake up at 4:00am most days anyway (thank you 13 hour time difference). It was a slightly awkward ride since the woman who picked me up spoke approximately zero English, and, wanting to take advantage of having a Chinese person my captive audience, I stumbled around conversational sentences trying to engage her. This was only a little successful because before I could get the words I wanted to say out of my mouth she was responding, at which point I was still trying to process the question I was asking and not receptive to an answer… but I would say I understood a good 65% of what was going on.

We wound our way up the mountain that seemed to just appear out of the smog after an hour of highways and flat-landed cities, and pulled into a precariously sloped driveway. I stepped out and straightened my dress, ready to make a professional impression.

I walked into a courtyard surrounded by buildings with selected panes replaced by stained glass (apparently they have a resident glass blower). Jim Spear, one of the owners, specializes in remodeling and refurbishing traditional Chinese homes using modern comfort and technology, therefore all the buildings were very inviting.

I was greeted by, to my surprise, and American from Seattle. I later found out that he is doing an internship at mutianyu developing fruit vinegars and liquors as a branch of the business. He works independently and experiments with ingredients of his own choosing, as is the structure of the internship. Where was this when I was looking for something to do in China?? Anyway, I wrote more about the internship and the resort’s eco-practices on my other blog if you are interested in reading more:

This guy’s name is Chris, and he sat down with me and just started talking. He was very sociable and would joke occasionally with the Chinese employees in slang-ridden Mandarin that I was not privy to. When he arrived in China 2 years ago, after finishing a degree at UW in Horticultural and sustainablitly something or other, he did not speak a lick of Chinese. Now he is pretty much fluent, I was very impressed. After about 2 hours of conversation and my grilling interview questions (“so, um, tell me about the farm, maybe, if you want to?” – okay, not THAT timidly ), I so candidly asked “It’s super nice of you to talk to me, but do you have a job to do or something?” Giving me a tour was his task of the morning, however, so that was cool.

Fun Fact: Michelle Obama visited the very place that I was sitting a year ago and Chris had the privilege of serving her water.

Chris did eventually have to go back to work, so another employee who spoke a little bit of English handed me a map and told me I could see the Great Wall while I was waiting for my car back to the city. On the map the path to the Wall was labeled “hike,” and as I was noticing this he looked at my feet and said “I think your shoes are not right.” To which I belligerently smiled and said, “I think it will be fine!”

It was a long mile uphill, and I was getting strange looks from locals as I traversed the rocky terrain in a cute pair of sandals and my cotton dress. When I got to the top, there was a certain point at which you had to present a ticket, so I stopped there and just looked up in awe at the ancient structure built atop a mountain to ward off potential nomadic enemies. I tried to take a picture, but they just don’t do it justice. Plus from that far away, it just looks so small!

Going down was almost worse than going up… I perpetually felt like I was going to tumble over and somersault down the road. I made it back without incident, and did quite enjoy the cumbersome walk regardless.

The ride back to the city was significantly less awkward, mainly because I was sound asleep. It was a day to remember, and one day I hope to return to The Brickyard with on a more spa-heavy excursion – and proper footwear.

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