Former president Bill Clinton came to his alma mater yesterday to tell college students from all over the Washington area to turn "youthful idealism into a lifetime of action."
Clinton urged almost 400 enthusiastic students from Georgetown University and other area colleges to figure out "the basic outlines of the world in which you live." Decide what's good about it and what's bad about it, he said, then determine a "strategy to get you where you want to go" by pursuing higher education, participating in community service and working toward what he called an integrated community in which all can benefit equally from opportunities and profits.
He said young people need to vote, adding: "It's not enough unless you understand how much it matters. . . . If people under 30 voted in the same percentages as people over 55, we would have a different Congress."
Clinton's appearance was sponsored by his William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation, based in New York City, and was hosted by Georgetown, where he got his undergraduate degree in 1968. The event, the first Young Adult Symposium, was billed as an opportunity for students to hear experts discuss issues that most affect their lives. Yesterday's topics -- which students discussed in small groups led by such people as Henry Foster, a Vanderbilt University professor and Clinton's former surgeon general nominee, and Vincent Schiraldi, founder and president of the Justice Policy Institute -- were criminal justice, education, health and civic involvement.
The crowd included 100 students from Georgetown and about 200 from Howard, American, Gallaudet, George Mason, George Washington and Southeastern universities as well as the universities of the District of Columbia and Maryland. Another 100 were brought by organizations that mentor, train and work with young people, particularly low-income and minority youths.
One was Walter Callejas, 21, who came to Washington from El Salvador with his family when he was 3 and spent the next 15 years in and out of school and on the edge of criminality. A year ago, Callejas said, he decided to stop hanging out with friends who regularly stole cars and shoplifted. He now lives with a sister in Columbia Heights and has enrolled in a Latin American Youth Center program called Youth Opportunities, getting academic and job training. He is to take the test for his General Equivalency Development diploma today.
Yesterday, Callejas participated in the criminal justice discussion and later stood on the stage of Georgetown's Gaston Auditorium and told Clinton and his fellow students that they must take charge of their destinies.
"People out here robbing people for a pair of Jordans just because they want to look good. If we don't do nothing about it, nothing will happen," he said. "Everybody needs to contribute. We need to stop being followers and start being leaders."
Or as Chanel Haliburton, 22, a senior at George Washington said: "Youth are the largest untapped natural resource that America has. . . . We have an incredible opportunity, all of us who go to school here in Washington. We can walk down the street and talk to our legislators. Like my mother used to tell me, talk is cheap. Don't talk about it, be about it."
A spokesman said Clinton wants to sponsor annual youth summits. And Clinton announced that the foundation would give $40,000 grants to several groups that brought students -- Advocates for Youth, College Summit, Latin America Youth Center and Youth Vote -- to aid their work.
"I wanted you to have the discipline, as well as the opportunity" to talk about solutions to problems, he said. "This is not just about what you think, but about what should be done. . . . It's important that young people work towards that."
Clinton was greeted warmly by the students, and afterward, he held up his entourage of Secret Service agents and foundation staff members by partaking in some of his favorite presidential pastimes: pressing the flesh, posing for pictures, talking one-on-one for a few minutes at a time and even kissing the forehead and holding the hand of a young woman in a wheelchair.