Clinton Global Initative University

Two weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend the Clinton Global Initiative University conference hosted by Washington University. While the CGI is fairly well known, I had never heard of CGI U until I saw a headline in the student newspaper at Washington University last fall announcing the conference. It's a meeting designed to bring undergraduate and graduate students from around the world with ideas to address global issues together to meet one another and receive training and support to complete their goals.

Each goal is called a "commitment to action" and is explicitly centered on how to take a grand idea and make progress toward real, measureable action. About 1200 students are invited to attend the conference. The real kicker is that the host university receives 200 of those slots. So all of us at WashU had a much easier time being accepted. It's clearly a reward for the hosting university--which has to provide a huge amount of support, logitics and infrastructure--but the upshot is that the diversity of commitments is increased because of the lower bar for entry.

My own commitment to action is based on my ongoing efforts to bring St. Louis plant scientists and community gardeners together over their common interest in developing strong food systems. In fact, that is my commitment to action. I want to bring these groups together so they can be advocates for one another. So plant scientists are engaged in their own communities, strengthening them through productive uses of public spaces. So urban agriculturalists vocally--and politically--support research to create strong crops. I think it all starts with meeting on common ground and developing mutual respect.

So that's my plan. Although I am already working toward those goals, I still haven't fully fleshed out my ideas or developed a real plan of action to make sure I'm making progress. That was what CGI U promised to offer.

The conference was held across three days, but there was really only one day full of events and workshops. On Friday, they hosted a networking event for all the attendees to grab some food and mingle with one another. Students from WashU, from other American schools and from literally the other side of the world were all there. The menu was a "Taste of the Midwest" featuring provel cheese (a fake provolone native to STL), St. Louis-style barbecue, Italian fair from The Hill, toasted ravioli and other quaint personifications of my new home city.

I wandered over to the cocktail table with the "Agriculture" sign on it--seemed appropriate enough. It turns out that wasn't an accident and I met my mentor there. I had a mentor who was supposed to guide me in my CGI U experience but as far as I could tell she just sent me emails telling me how excited she was and how to download the mobile app.

However, I did meet a woman from Palestine and was so surprised to hear her home country that I completely failed to ask her a dozen questions I might otherwise have. I've only ever met one other Palestinian to my knowledge but never one who was actually living there. Had just flown halfway around the world. I didn't even catch what her commitment was, something related to agriculture as mine is. But that was my first realization that I was playing at a serious level here.

That leads me to mention that coming from WashU, where it was so much easier to be accepted, left me with a bit of an inferiority complex during the event. A huge portion of the attendees--most of them younger than me--had commitments to assist a large population of underserved people around the world. Many of them had already made significant progress. So at times I felt a bit like the kid at the adult table, trying to follow the conversation and sit up straight but accidentally spilling mashed potatoes all over my shirt with my legs dangling uselessly a foot above the floor. Yet at the same time it was an ego boost to be on the same level as truly inspiring students, let alone being in the same room with world-renowned personalities.

The first evening followed with a plenary session. Chelsea Clinton came out and welcomed everyone, introducing the purpose of CGI U. She was followed by President Bill Clinton who spoke and then welcomed the speakers: Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and Square; William Kamkwamba, writer of "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind"; Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy; Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International. President Clinton moderated the panel discussing entrepreneurship and social mindfulness. It was inspiring and fascinating--that was the goal I believe--and we all took a "class photo" and I wandered home.

Saturday was the primary day of the conference packed with panels and workshops. Unfortunately, there were really only two decisions to make during the entire event: a morning session and an afternoon session, each about an hour and a half long. The rest of the time was taken up with fixed panels covering interesting topics but they didn't directly address how to improve our commitments. The workshops I did choose to attend were amazing, and I found myself wishing I could have filled my days with them because it was impossible to attend all of them.

The morning began with a similar session to the previous evening's, moderated by Chelsea Clinton and covering many different issues surrounding women, particularly in the developing world. Then we moved on to the first open slot. I had decided to attend a panel on STEM education because a big part of my commitment is focused on public-facing science communication. It was moderated by a senior advisor in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and featured three women who were focused on STEM education, including one woman who was the team leader of her own commitment to action.

The panel focused on effective ways to improve science education, primarily formal science education in classrooms and universities. The discussion centered around how to attract more students, particularly young women and girls, to pursue STEM fields. All of the panelists agreed that by focusing on the social benefits of science and engineering, we would be able to engage more students, especially women who may be drawn to that purpose.

The panel concluded with a discussion at our table about our commitments and what we could do to improve STEM education. I met Melanie Bauer, a third year psychology graduate student at WashU, whose commitment centered on informal science education. I was very glad to meet a student from WashU with an overlapping interest because while networking with the hundreds of students from around the world was great, I knew I would be much more likely to follow up and collaborate with another student in St. Louis.

In fact, I met up with Melanie for lunch, completely skipping the noon presentation, and I devoured her information about how to write for the university newsletter, Scientific American and about a media fellowship from the AAAS that she was applying for. After the conference, we agreed to work together to write an essay for the National Science Foundation on ways to improve graduate education that was due a week later. We presented our idea for a new curriculum required of all graduate students to train them in communicating science to the public. We could win a cash prize come June!

The afternoon workshop was equally helpful. I thought it was the best choice from what CGI U called "skill sessions", focused on how to monitor and evaluate your commitment to ensure you're making progress. This was a real weakness of my commitment but I learned a lot. Or at least enough to get the juices flowing.

The final event of the conference was hosted by Stephen Colbert, the headlining act of the weekend (besides of course a former president, his daughter, the founder of Twitter, etc. etc.). He came out and riffed on the CGI U by presenting his own "Colbert Galactic Initiative". He then sat down with President Clinton in character for a 15 minute interview that he presented on his Monday night show. Afterwards he broke character--apparently a stipulation of President Clinton's--to talk more seriously about the issues being addressed by CGI and CGI U. Finally, students in attendance could stand up to microphones and ask wither Colbert or Clinton questions, and this portion of the event was apparently livestreamed for audiences at home.

That was basically the end. There was another networking event but I just stuck around long enough to grab dinner and then headed home. And here I'll hang my head in shame because I didn't attend the volunteering event the next morning. I should have. I told them I would. Oops.

But I was already exhausted! It was a fantastic opportunity. I only wish I had been able to attend more panels and workshops during the day on Saturday. Because despite how interesting some of the moderated discussions were, they were less directly helpful for planning my own commitment. More of an inspiration I suppose.

However, I did receive some invaluable help on monitoring the success of my commitment; on current perspectives in STEM education. I met a new friend and collaborator and we've already had a productive relationship arguing our case for more informal science communication training in graduate school. I'll be able to tell grandkids who don't care about the day I almost-kinda met Bill Clinton and Stephen Colbert. I'm very thankful to CGI U for accepting my application to attend and grateful that attending WashU at the right time gave my more modest idea a chance to be heard.