CGI U@Duke Stories: Duke at the CGI U Annual Meeting 2015

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The annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University is kind of like a cross between the Super Bowl and a Ted Talk. All the hype and excitement of the former and glam and rich content of the latter. I find it both exhilarating and exhausting to attend this spectacle as I did this year along with thirty-seven Duke students.

I have attended this meeting for the past three years on behalf of our university. Each year it takes place on a different campus. In just one-and-a-half days, they manage to direct 1000 students through a jam-packed agenda of motivational speeches, skill and working sessions, side competitions as well as a community-based service project. A maze of shuttle busses continually runs us between several area hotels, meeting locations on the host campus and the nearest airport. All the while, celebrities, their secret service and a slew of press cameras and reporters make their way through the fray. It is an event planner’s nightmare.

I have gotten to know the young CGI U staff in charge of organizing the meeting each year and my hat goes off to them.   By the time we all finally arrive on site and the meeting begins, they are giddy from long-term sleep deprivation. Somehow, they seem to pull it off each year without a major hitch.

This year, 68 of our students applied for the privilege of paying their own way to attend the annual meeting held at the University of Miami. 42 were accepted and 37 managed to scrape together the money to cover their airfare and hotel and the resolve to spend the beginning of their spring breaks very much on point.

While I can understand that many of them see this as a great networking opportunity with the potential to jumpstart future careers, I have been skeptical about whether or not the civic and educational value of the annual meeting is equal to or greater than the cost required to attend it. In order to be invited to attend CGI U, students must submit a Commit to Action. CGI U staff vet these commitments based upon whether it is new, specific and measureable. If selected, then the commitment-maker is invited to attend the meeting held annually on a different college or university campus. At his or her own expense.

Three years ago, CGI U approached President Brodhead with an opportunity for Duke to be one the first campuses invited to join the newly created Clinton Global Initiative University Network. To join the Network, Duke had to commit $10,000 annually to support Duke student Commitments to Action.   CGI U allows for a small percentage of this to be used for travel to the annual meeting. The rest must be distributed among the students to use for project development. Thanks to support from the Social Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship pillar of Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative, we have had a separate fund to support student travel and are able to commit the full $10,000 of DOCE funding to support student Commitments to Action. An ad hoc faculty committee met yesterday at the DOCE to select the awardees from this year’s pool of student projects. We will announce our student winners next week.

Although it took me time to get past the hype of the annual meeting, I am convinced that Duke is right to invest in sending our students to the meeting as well as funding their commitments to action. Experiencing the meeting is of educational value to our students for several reasons. The Clintons use their influence to bring attention to and galvanize students from around the world who are committed to social action. The result is an inspiring, global community working for social good. Stepping outside of identity politics, CGI U student commitment-makers network and have the opportunity to connect professionally with other students while presenting their proposals to investors, mentors, and community leaders. Duke alum and University Trustee, Paul Farmer, who joined President Clinton, Larry Wilmore and Pussy Riot on stage for the closing plenary claimed that “identify politics that lead us to believe that people have different values is the biggest problem I have seen.” President Clinton nodded in agreement and turn to implore us all to find a “common humanity” and work together to maximize our impact as social entrepreneurs.   Taking the pulse of the crowd as we all stood for a final applause, I felt a palpable energy, electricity and comradery; a feeling that only seems to happen when we come together in the spirit of shared community.