Students with big ideas to convene for Clinton Global Initiative University

March 28, 2012

Three students at George Washington University want to build low-cost bamboo bicycles for transportation in sub-Saharan Africa. A junior at New York University wants to make a doll for every child with night terrors. Four Georgetown University students want to extend microcredit to cash-strapped entrepreneurs.

This weekend, Bill Clinton is coming to town to help them.

The fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative University meeting convenes Friday evening at GWU, bringing together more than 1,000 students from 80 countries and every state to discuss how each hopes to change the world. The weekend agenda includes a one-on-one session Saturday night between Clinton and talk-show host Jon Stewart. Fittingly, the session concludes Sunday in a day of service, with students repairing homes and assembling care packages for the military.

The former president created the annual gathering to provide a focal point for thousands of scattershot service projects on college campuses and to transform the more ambitious initiatives into full-fledged nonprofit ventures that can endure beyond college.

“If they come up with good ideas, there’s a chance that they’ll be picked up and slowly or rapidly grow into a national movement,” Clinton said Wednesday in a telephone interview.

Community service among college students probably stands near an all-time high, although historical data are sketchy. The most recent report from the federal Corporation for National and Community Service shows that 3.1 million students volunteered 312 million hours in 2010. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the 2010 Haiti earthquake each mobilized a fresh wave of volunteerism.

High schools routinely require community service for graduation, and colleges have built ambitious service initiatives around the annual spring break and Martin Luther King Jr. Day holidays.

Students at the College of William and Mary logged a total of 333,453 service hours during the 2010-11 academic year, or about 55 hours for every student, according to a campus survey. At GWU, the share of freshmen taking service-learning courses has risen to 10 percent this year from 3 percent in 2009-10.

“I personally believe that this is a very, very good trend,” Clinton said, noting that his daughter, Chelsea, was required to perform community service at Sidwell Friends School, the prestigious Quaker campus in Northwest Washington. The younger Clinton will be at the forum this weekend.

Clinton launched the university event in 2008 as an outgrowth of his Clinton Global Initiative, an organization that assembles world leaders to attack pressing global challenges. He traveled to Tulane University in post-Katrina New Orleans for the first collegiate gathering, with subsequent meetings in Miami, San Diego and Austin. Together, the events have drawn 3,500 students from 110 countries.

Participants are chosen by application. Everyone who attends must have a Commitment to Action: a “new, specific and measurable plan” that addresses a challenge, either on campus or off.

Among this year’s more promising projects is Panda Cycles. Three GWU students are building bicycles from bamboo, a material so inexpensive that, for every bicycle they sell, they can donate another to Bicycles for Humanity, a grass-roots group that works in sub-Saharan Africa.

The students have two prototypes, built by 21-year-old Matt Wilkins and 24-year-old Jon Torrey, both engineering students. At the conference, they hope to learn “how to get it off the ground, and how to raise funds, and how to make it happen,” said business major Chris Deschenes, 22.

The three have the support of the former president, who said their idea “could literally revolutionize transportation” if it pans out.

Delia Mandia, a 20-year-old junior at New York University, has stitched more than 1,000 dolls to help children with night terrors under an initiative called Night Night Monster. Mandia started making the dolls while cooped up at her Staten Island home on a medical leave. She gave one to a family friend. When the boy told her the doll had helped ease his nightmares, she had an epiphany.

“He told all his friends in summer camp, and I started getting orders and orders and orders,” Mandia said. “Before I knew it, we were shipping all up and down the East Coast.”

Mandia has set up a nonprofit organization to collect donations and orders. At Clinton’s conference, she hopes to learn how to manage the burgeoning business.

“At this point in my life, I’m prepared to be a student,” she said. “I’m not prepared to run a global nonprofit.”

Four Georgetown students have created the Hilltop Microfinance Initiative, offering small-business loans to low-income, minority entrepreneurs in the region. Their first $3,000 loan went to a food-truck driver in Columbia Heights. All told, the students have loaned $18,000 to six clients in several D.C. wards, Southern Maryland and Northern Virginia. The funds come from private donors and foundations.

Craig Melcher, a 20-year-old junior, notes that his generation came of age during the Great Recession, an era that provided ample lessons on the virtues of giving.

“Through the late 2000s, we kind of saw the highs of the highs and the lows of the lows,” he said.

Now, “there’s this desire to really give back and help,” said Alex Honjiyo, 20, also a junior. “We don’t want to wait until we leave college. We want to start now, while we’re learning all these interesting ideas and theories. We want to put them all into practice.”

The students are excited about the prospect of meeting Clinton. As freshmen, Honjiyo and Melcher lived in Harbin Hall, the same Georgetown dorm where Clinton once slept. (Clinton graduated from Georgetown in 1968.)

Four GWU students are working with two established nonprofit groups to improve maternal health care in the Rwandan city of Butare. Each summer, 50 Butare women will enroll at a local clinic to learn about nutrition and contraception; at the session’s end, each participant will receive a goat.

Clinton’s conference is “really a jumping-off point for us to find out what we can do to make our project better,” said sophomore Alex Moran, 20. “It’s really inspiring to see there are other people with the same goals as you.”

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