A conversation with Duke’s CGI U campus reps

Since CGI U’s inception in 2007, Duke has been among the leading universities in sending participants to its annual meeting – held last year at Arizona State University, with the 2015 meeting planned for March at the University of Miami. Every year the number of Duke participants has grown, and 37 Duke students have been invited to attend the national meeting in 2015.  Jay Sullivan, Trinity ’16, and Sahil Segal, Fuqua ’15, are Duke’s current CGI U Campus Representatives, responsible for promoting the program to their peers and acting as a point of contact between Duke students and CGI U’s national organization.

As a prerequisite for attending CGI U, student leaders must develop a “Commitment to Action,” a specific and measurable initiative that addresses challenges on campus, in local communities, and around the world. Many opportunities at Duke exist to help students find their passion and apply it in the world to create tangible impact.

Jay Sullivan found his project during Duke’s January 2014 Winter Forum, a two-day competition immediately preceding the spring semester each year in which students, alumni, and faculty collaborate to explore a major global issue from interdisciplinary and intercultural perspectives. Having been interested in influencing educational policy since participating the Duke Focus Program, Jay’s Winter Forum team developed a project called STEMPals, a collaborative online platform to connect students in other countries with students in the US to work on similar STEM-based projects. Further developing his project and broadening it to domestic educational policy on the whole, Jay is very active in the Duke Bass Connections program in educational research. This university-wide initiative links faculty and students to respond to complex challenges through problem-focused educational pathways and project teams made up of student and faculty representatives from many different departments, each bringing something unique to the collaboration effort.

Increasing global awareness through youth recycling education using crayons was just the first way in which Sahil Segal brought his business skills to the social sector. A graduate student in the Duke Fuqua School of Business, Sahil’s commitment to action introduces social missions to for-profit companies. “I think companies that appeal to people’s good side, while still making a profit, is how the world can change,” said Segal about his work connecting the business world to the social sector. “In business school, there are very few opportunities to give back and interact in the social space. CGI U gave me the opportunity to do so.”

By collaborating with similarly passionate individuals from across the world, Jay and Sahil are able to further their research and turn it into reality. “We are converting the practice of simply ‘throwing money at the problem’ into investment and creation that has a quantitative and tangible impact,” said Jay. In dealing with orphans and parents with more than eight children, Jay believes that the obstacle to education reform is a stable support system. “The research is there, the resources are there, the knowledge is there, we just have to break down the education barriers in order to enter the social entrepreneurial space and implement everything that we know. At CGI U, we are exclusively focusing on how we implement change, then actually doing it.”

During an interview with DOCE intern Amy Kramer, Jay and Sahil discussed their experiences at CGI U and shared some advice about how student activists can channel their passion and implement tangible change in the world using all the opportunities that Duke has to offer.

AMY: How was the CGI U conference last year? What was the most valuable?

SAHIL: The conference showed me that my business view on social change is not only feasible, but is gaining momentum. I enjoyed seeing students from across the country develop ideas to change the world. Change is going to happen and college students can and are making a difference. There is so much funding and support for this type of change. The Clintons bring a lot of attention and funding to this program and as a result, this is bigger than just networking and inspiring; CGI U actually gives you the means to achieve your goals.

JAY: At Duke, tons of people are engaging in knowledge in the social and public society. The coolest thing about CGI U is learning that people outside of the Duke bubble are actually thinking about change too. It is nice to be surrounded by a group of people committed to making a difference in their lives and life outside of the classroom. People come from everywhere and are united by the common mission to make the world a better place. You see people think outside of the box. You grow. You take an idea there and you’re connected to people thinking about the same issues and you share feedback, learn how to do what you want to do better. Sahil is right: the Clintons bring incredible resources. There are a lot of doors that can open to you if you make the most of it and you are committed to action.

AMY: What advice to you have for students at Duke who are committed to action, but don’t yet have plan or idea about where to start?

JAY: Don’t force it. In a lot of ways, the things about which you are most passionate – the thing that you want to answer with your life – the ideas will come organically. Last year’s Winter Forum inspired me to become more involved in educational policy, specifically through opportunities at CGI U. You will feel the moment of obligation to take the opportunity to solve the question that you want to solve – find the passion then seek the opportunity to act on it.

SAHIL: [Regarding attending CGI U if you don’t already have a specific project idea] You can always apply as a team. In generating ideas, you’re not solving all the world’s problems with one idea. Start with an inconvenience or something that you feel is “messed up.” Sometimes it’s a simple fix. Start small. For example, GM is coming out with standard free Wi-Fi in their automobiles through which they can send informational messages to alert people with electric cars when to replace their batteries before their cars actually die.

AMY: So you’re not fixing electric cars dying, at least not yet, but rather focusing on the inconvenience of them dying without warning. You’re giving users the chance to fix their problem themselves before it happens.

SAHIL: Yes. I recall one gentleman at CGI U who created a school in a small village in India. Instead of sending money over to implement blanket education practices, he only focused and invested in the adult females to empower them. They found incredible improvement stemming from these women teaching their children and passing down their knowledge and thereby helping the next generation in the community.

JAY: Or give a child an opportunity to read 10% faster.

SAHIL: Or provide one more soccer ball to a village. It may not seem like a lot, but it changed someone’s life. Instead of trying to implement broad educational systems with kindergarten through graduate school in Uganda, first figure out how to get pens over there. One step at a time.

JAY: Exactly. Find the little thing that you can do to contribute to the cause you’re trying to change.


Both Jay and Sahil are committed to reforming the education system and increasing early investment in order to yield greater returns to the community. However, no matter what you’re passionate about, CGI U offers opportunities for innovative social reform across many sectors.