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Undergrads develop action plans to solve global challenges

Thirteen Northeastern undergraduates joined more than 1,000 students from around the world at the 6th annual Clinton Global Initiative University meeting earlier this month in St. Louis. Students selected to attend the prestigious event were brought together with innovators, thought leaders, and civically engaged celebrities to discuss solutions for the globe’s greatest challenges.

This year marked the first time Northeastern was represented at the annual event. Students selected for the prestigious event had to submit action plans that address global challenges in one of five areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health.

The CGIU meeting was held April 5-7. Students participated in engaging workshops, learned about each other’s idea, and listened to a series of dynamic global leaders speak at plenary sessions. The experience enabled students to network, develop potential future partnerships, and build upon the “Commitment to Action” plans they will accelerate back on their campuses and around the globe.

The Northeastern contingent featured four social-enterprise projects all borne out of the innovative programming and experiential-learning opportunities offered through the university’s Social Enterprise Institute. Jonna Iacono, director of the Office of Fellowships, accompanied the students at CGIU.

(Left to right) Northeastern students Michael Behan, Caitlin Ferguson, and Robert Gulick.

In 2010, senior business major Michael Behan founded Njabini Inc., which helps poor families in rural Kenya grow income-generating projects that support their families and communities. Njabini’s latest endeavor, the Potato Project, is a collaborative model that brings potato producers together to collectively increase their production and profits. Behan recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $35,000 online for the project.

Behan said the CGIU meeting created an inspiring atmosphere in which a diverse cross-section of students shared their innovative concepts. He noted one dynamic session he attended in which two young social entrepreneurs discussed how to utilize stronger metrics that better measure a venture’s impact. For example, he said his Potato Project community surveys have only collected quantitative data, but the session explored strategies to gather important qualitative data.

Former President Bill Clinton established the Clinton Global Initiative in 2005 to convene global leaders to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. In 2007, Clinton launched the CGIU to engage the next generation of leaders from college campuses worldwide in the conversation.

This year’s CGIU meeting featured a range of impressive speakers including Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker who won a 2006 Nobel Prize for his efforts to create social and economic development through microfinance, and Stephen Colbert, host and executive producer of the hit TV show The Colbert Report.

Habib El Magrissy, a business major originally from Egypt, is part of a student team whose project involves installing irrigation systems in the Dominican Republic to help undocumented Haitian immigrants establish sustainable agriculture practices. Magrissy and his team could hardly contain their excitement when during one of Clinton’s speeches at CGIU, the country’s 42nd president stressed the importance of helping smallholder farmers develop economic opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

“That’s exactly what we’re trying to do,” Magrissy exclaimed.

Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus (second from left) meets with Northeastern students (left to right) Abhi Nangia, Anahi Santoyo Delgado, and Rebecca Darling.

Behan’s Potato Project and the Dominican Republic Irrigation Project were both invited to present their work at a special exhibition at the conclusion of the weekend meeting.

The two other Northeastern student projects featured at CGIU were Camino Nuevo and the Social Enterprise Review. Camino Nuevo works with women living in Nicaragua atop La Chureca—the largest open-air landfill in Central America—empowering them to design creative and durable products made from recycled materials found in their community and helping them to provide schooling for their young children. Camino Nuevo was a finalist in CGIU’s Social Venture Challenge, a highly competitive contest to win $5,000 in seed funding.

The Social Enterprise Review is an online and in-print student-led publication featuring articles and op-eds on the latest news and trends in global social enterprise. Its editor-in-chief, senior Caitlin Ferguson, said the publication’s website launched this semester, and group members brought copies of its first print edition to CGIU. She said Northeastern’s commitment to social enterprise initiatives at the undergraduate level stood out at the meeting.

“Ours is one of the only undergrad forums for this social enterprise discussion,” she said. “People were really excited to learn more about it.”