Through the Clinton Global Initiative University, this powerhouse is proving that young people can—and should—take things into their own hands.
It's 38 degrees in a warehouse with no heat, and the former First Daughter of the United States is elbow-deep in a bin full of apples. This isn't exactly how I pictured meeting the international icon, who grew up in the spotlight (and the White House) as the child of the world's most politically powerful couple, President Bill Clinton and eventual Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But, as I would soon discover, it is completely apropos. On a volunteer outing with her fellow Clinton Foundation colleagues at New York's City Harvest, Chelsea is busy practicing what she preaches: getting her hands dirty to help those in need.
This is not, I warn you, a PR stunt. Chelsea may have had a slightly more rarefied upbringing than your average American girl (she was a diligent student and played on the soccer team—but she also had a Secret Service code name and was one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People at just 16 years old), but she's nothing if not sincere. Dressed for a day of hard work and heavy lifting in skinny jeans, a soft cotton tee, and a Clinton Foundation hoodie, there's no trace of It-girl ego here. She's too busy focusing her famously whipsmart mind on the more significant—if less glamorous— goal of actually, genuinely improving the world she lives in. And there's no better way than to jump in and do it herself.
"Service is an opportunity for young women to really empower themselves," she tells me when, after she and her team have bagged up more than 16,000 pounds of apples for local food rescue organizations, we sit down to chat. "Particularly when there are so many ways girls are told they can't do things. If I can make just as much difference as a boy can, if I can maybe even pack more apples than the guy standing next to me, why shouldn't I be able to do whatever I want to do? Service is a deceptively profound way to prove not only what you can do for the world, but what you can tell the world to expect from you and your ambitions."
Chelsea's ambitions are wide-reaching, from pursuing a doctorate at Oxford University to sitting on the board at the School of American Ballet to stepping into a leadership role at the recently renamed Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. But perhaps her most ardent passion is the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), a program that encourages college students to take charge of making a positive impact on their communities, whether local or global in scale. "Our premise is that every young person can change the world," Chelsea says, putting herself in the growing camp of heavyweights who believe teens are more influential than ever before. "What's profound and exciting is the way young people are taking advantage of the fact that the Internet enables everyone to have a megaphone. It enables everyone to stand up and say, 'I deserve to be heard, and I demand that you listen.'"
Despite having spent her youth on the national stage, Chelsea knows what it feels like to have to prove yourself. "One of the things I had trouble with is that I was the President's daughter, and I never wanted to be perceived as entitled," she confides. "That's why I always worked so hard in school and every job I ever had. I needed to obliterate any question of whether I deserved it, so I just tried to outwork everyone." But perfectionism had its inevitable downsides, as she's quick to admit. "This is mortifying, but I have a vivid memory of when I was a freshman at Stanford," she says. "I call my mother, sobbing hysterically. Like, convulsively sobbing. My mother is beside herself, so she shouts for my father to get on the phone. He asks, 'What's wrong?!' and I tell them, 'I got a B-minus on my chemistry test!'" Remembering this, Chelsea erupts into laughter. "There was silence on the other end of the phone. I think they couldn't decide whether to laugh or be upset for me. My mom said, 'You need to get your priorities straight.' It was a powerful lesson."
And it's clearly one that stuck: Chelsea has rallied her troops around CGI U, leading what's proving to be an important forum for college students interested in standing up and doing good. Discussing their efforts, Chelsea's excitement is palpable. Her bright blue eyes grow wide, her voice more determined. This, it's obvious, is where her heart lies. "Amanda Gutierrez, for example, helped create a prototype with a group of students at Rice University," Chelsea says, citing a recent CGI U attendee who impressed her. "It's a tool midwives in developing countries can use to prevent potentially fatal hemorrhaging during childbirth. We were able to connect Amanda's group with funding, and now they're testing the prototype in hospitals. Hopefully it's something that will make a big difference."
She may be high-profile of the highest order, but Chelsea is humble enough not to realize it could be her influence that's leading girls to more purposeful aims. In her mind, she's just "someone who's still trying to figure it out, and tries to figure it out every day by making a difference in the areas I really care about. And whether that's being a good daughter, being a good friend, or being a good leader of CGI U, the way I figure it out is through trying to be the person I want to be." Chelsea jumps up to join a group photo of volunteers, kneeling on the concrete floor so more staffers can squeeze into the shot.
Surrounded by people who would follow her to the ends of the earth—or a frigid warehouse in New York City—to make a positive impact, she seems like she's every bit that person already. A charismatic leader with big dreams. After all, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree.
This article was originally published in Teen Vogue's April issue. Look for it on newsstands starting March 25.