Clinton Global Initiative University leaves indelible mark on WUSTL

Bill Clinton leads a panel discussion including William Kamkwamba, Jack Dorsey, Zainab Salbi and Kenneth Cole during opening plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative University on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis Friday, April 5. (Credit: Sid Hastings)

The sixth annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) was held on the Washington University in St. Louis Campus April 5-7, bringing more than 1,200 students from 75 countries and all 50 states to exchange ideas and solutions to effect real change to pressing global issues.

The weekend was a whirlwind exchange of ideas and inspirations, but now is when the real work begins: Making change happen. CGI U gave the participants – 200 of whom were WUSTL students – a much-needed boost.

“As students, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, or become cynical and apathetic,” said Rachel Smidt, a master’s of public health candidate at the Brown School, “but the inspirational words from President Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and the numerous change agents really inspired hope within me. They believe that our ideas can change things for the better, and they are willing to back our dreams up with support and guidance.”

And while CGI U descended on WUSTL venues and facilities over the course of two days, it left behind an indelible mark on the university. Beginning with the university’s institutional Commitment to Action — a $30 million pledge to assist sustainability efforts on campus announced March 27 — and ending with a memorable weekend not only for the participants, but also for the approximately 185 WUSTL student volunteers who, as smiling ambassadors, helped the university make an indelible impression of its own.

“Public service and global leadership already were at the heart of our mission at Washington University,” said Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton, who helped open the conference and shared the stage with both President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton Friday night. “But I don’t think anyone who was involved with CGI U this past weekend will soon forget the inspiration or the energy that came out of this weekend.”

Amanda Moore McBride, PhD, associate dean of the Brown School and director of the Gephardt Institute for Public Service, who helped to spearhead CGI U on behalf of the university, also said the weekend was a call to action. “President Clinton said all humans share 99.5 percent of their DNA. The point driven home by this statistic and the entire weekend is that, despite our apparent differences, we must realize our common humanity, our shared fate.

“This calls us forth to work toward positive social change worldwide — 1,200 leaders just left our campus empowered with the knowledge and skills on how to do so.”

The weekend indeed energized the campus, beginning when Chelsea Clinton walked onto stage at the WU Field House Friday night, thanking the students for allowing CGI U to “invade” the campus and touting WUSTL – “WashU, I can call you that right? We’re friends now” – as an example for colleges and universities around the world.

Wrighton thanked the younger Clinton and said, “It’s all true.” He then introduced the former president, reminding him of the last time Clinton was in the Field House – the 1992 town-meeting style Presidential Debate.

And from the moment Bill Clinton took the stage, the weekend turned into a frenzy of shared passions, idea exchanges, concrete suggestions and celebrity sightings.

Former President Bill Clinton participates in a conversation with comedian Stephen Colbert during the closing plenary. (Credit: James Byard)

Comedian Stephen Colbert, actors Matthew Perry and Jada Pinkett Smith, Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and a host of business leaders and human rights activists presented at various times workshops and panel discussions addressing issues in CGI U’s five key focus areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health.

Among the speakers at one of the breakout working sessions was WUSTL’s Michael Sherraden, PhD, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School, who moderated “Poverty and Promise in America’s Rust Belt.” He was joined on the panel by Kailey Burger, a third-year student at Washington University School of Law.

A complete list of speakers and events can be found at and a Tumblr blog, updated throughout the weekend with pictures, video and soundbites, can be found at

Among the more memorable highlights:

  • Participant Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter and a native St. Louisan, worked overtime, making two appearances on campus during the day on Friday prior to participating in the Opening Plenary Session. Dorsey noted a special role WUSTL played in his development as young boy playing around with computers and figuring out how to access the Internet through a university database.
  • The taping of “The Colbert Report” from the Field House, with Colbert staying in character for half the event, then shedding his television facade for a substantive talk with Clinton on issues and a Q&A with students in the audience – a rare glimpse into the comedian’s psyche.
  • The emphasis throughout the weekend of creating a better future for girls and women around the world, with Clinton himself citing the disparity between boys and girls, women and men, saying that fixing that one problem around the world could effect real change.

But it was the students — bright, energetic, full of ideas and enthusiasm — who made the weekend so memorable.

Among the CGI U participants visiting the campus were 13 students invited from McDonnell International Scholars Academy partner institutions, welcomed in a reception in Green Hall prior to the start by about 21 McDonnell Academy students; the chancellor; James Wertsch, PhD, vice chancellor for international affairs and the Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences; and John McDonnell, who contributed to the vision that led to the founding of the McDonnell Academy.

Students participated in skill sessions at CGI U. This one was titled “Raising Money for Your Commitment.”

“CGI U was incredible,” said Henry Schreiber, a graduate student in the School of Medicine, whose project will work toward reducing the burden of sickle cell disease in St. Louis. “It is rare to have a chance to really connect with other service-minded people, share experiences, and develop new ideas.

“The entire experience has energized me to complete my commitment, and, at the same time, reminded me of how much work is still left to do.”

The weekend ended Sunday with a service project at Gateway STEM High School in midtown St. Louis that saw the conference participants painting classrooms and planting flowers and vegetable gardens.

Before President Clinton left, he praised the university for its participation in and support of CGI U.

“They did an unbelievable job with CGI U this year, and they do an unbelievable job preparing their students for the 21st century,” Clinton said.

Then, urging the students to participate in the service project, but also summing up the weekend, he said, “Now let’s go to work.”

Former President Bill Clinton speaks with CGI U participants during a service project at Gateway STEM High School. (Credit: James Byard)