Since its launch in 2008, CGI University (CGI U) has brought together more than 6,500 students to make more than 4,800 Commitments to Action, each addressing a pressing challenge with actions that are new, specific, and measurable.
In the lead up to the December 1 application deadline for CGI U 2015, we spoke to four CGI U commitment-makers to learn more about their experience at the meeting, their life-changing work, and their advice for those who are interested in attending the upcoming eighth meeting of CGI U—to be held at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida from March 6-8, 2015.
All undergraduate and graduate students are encouraged to apply to attend CGI U 2015; the final application deadline is December 1, 2014.
Why did you decide to apply to CGI U and what was the process of developing your Commitment to Action?
Davier Rodriguez (DREAMzone): When I arrived at Arizona State University and applied to CGI U, we were working on developing DREAMzone. This program provides student leaders, staff, and faculty with the necessary training and resources to effectively respond to the needs of undocumented students at institutions of higher education. We decided to apply because we knew that we wanted to make the program more robust by seeking expertise from folks around the world.
Jenny Amaraneni (SOLO Eyewear): I decided to apply to CGI U because I wanted to become more informed about social enterprises. CGI U came up in my internet searching as a platform to connect social-minded individuals. When I applied, I already had the general direction laid out for my company, but I was trying to figure out the funding and production side of the business.
The name SOLO Eyewear was inspired by certain moments in my life that involved facing my fears and overcoming them alone. At SOLO, we believe one idea, one person, one action can change the world. I wanted to create a brand that could inspire others to do amazing things, because far too often we think accomplishing something outstanding takes so much, but every little thing matters. SOLO uses products to fund eye care for people in need. Each pair of environmentally-friendly SOLO sunglasses purchased funds eye care through prescription eyeglasses and sight-saving eye surgeries.
Photo Credit: SOLO Eyewear
Gina Chang (Orchestrating Diversity): My group already had this student organization, Orchestrating Diversity, and we had some programs implemented, but we thought CGI U would be a great place to expand our project. As more public schools continue to shut down their music programs due to budget cuts, Orchestrating Diversity works to bring free music education to students. We had programs for kids 4-6 years old, a beginner string program for 6-8 year olds, and an urban youth orchestra for 12-18 year olds. We identified that there was a gap in the middle for kids that were in the intermediate level (ages 9-11) and we wanted to fill that gap. That was our very specific and achievable goal and that was our Commitment to Action.
Kanchan Amatya (Sustainable Fish Farming Project): When we applied to CGI U, we already had a project in mind that had the potential to combat issues of poverty, unemployment, and hunger in rural Nepal. Specifically, we wanted to establish a microfinance initiative that would provide 500 families in the Baseri village with the required funding and technical training to start their own revenue-producing fish farms. We had already partnered with local fish farming organizations in Nepal, but we lacked the funds to implement our project. Through our experience at CGI U, my team was fortunate enough to win The Resolution Project’s Social Venture Challenge, which provided us with seed funding and ongoing mentorship and support through the related Resolution Fellowship. We used the seed funding to conduct field research and train locals, and the fellowship helped us plan how to distribute the funding across our project, which helped us to further develop our Commitment to Action.
What are some of the challenges you faced when implementing your commitment? What are some of the resources or tools that were helpful in addressing these challenges?
Rodriguez: Funding was a challenge for us since our project hits on a hot button issue, especially in Arizona. However, we have been effective in using our local networks to generate resources. We relied on faculty organizations and student organizations to be able to pitch in and provide some funding, as well as the essential support of our volunteers. CGI also helped to expose and legitimize the work of DREAMzone. After CGI U, Arizona State University committed over $10,000 for our program. We also had a lot of support from Arizona State University’s CGI U liaison, who helped us message the work of our commitment and frame it as an educational issue rather than a political one.
Amatya: One of the main challenges that we faced while implementing the project in Nepal was the fact that we were all young and inexperienced in fish farming. We had problems getting the villagers and the partner organizations to be as passionate about the idea as we were. We were able to combat these challenges by working hard on the project and by showing local organizations and individuals that there was potential in the project.
Where is your commitment now and where do you see your commitment in the future?
Rodriguez: We’ve certified more than one thousand people through our training curriculum and have shared the curriculum with hundreds of individuals. We are now presenting to the national Teach for America recruitment team to support them in continuing to hire deferred action students for their corps positions, while also training their corps teaching staff with our curriculum.
We’ve also been getting calls from community colleges, nonprofits, and K-12 schools who are interested in using our curriculum, and are presenting at national conferences and sharing our curriculum with other schools in Texas, Nevada, and New Mexico. We are in talks with these schools about creating their own DREAMzones. Ultimately, we would like to embed DREAMzone into Arizona State University so that a staff member can oversee it and make it sustainable. Another thing we’ve been discussing is starting a nonprofit or foundation where we can continue to do our work on a national scale.
Amaraneni: We have helped nearly 10,000 people across 32 countries. We partnered with RestoringVision and two other organizations based in India. The two organizations in India that we work with perform cataract surgery for people in need, restoring their vision within 3-5 minutes with a surgery that costs as little as fifteen dollars. We are able to help them expand their efforts through the sales of our sunglasses.
We’re now looking at shifting our giving of eye care to a more education-based giving model. We want to start training individuals to provide eye care to remote areas of the world, places where we see ratios like one optometrist for every two million people. We are trying to become more conscious in how we source our products. We are working with artisans in Guatemala and Ghana and we’re doing so in an effort to lift them and their families out of poverty by paying fair wages. We are striving to become a more educated and responsible company.
Chang: Since 2013, we’ve had approximately 65 students go through our programs. Our commitment has grown and we have students coming Monday-Thursday to lessons, with around 10 students taking part in our new intermediate string program. We have a lot of new students and we want to be able to retain them for the coming years. We recently received a grant from the Fox Charitable Trust and we’ve been able to put on a master class workshop series with members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. It’s great for the students to hear from these established and successful musicians, proving that music can be a career. It encourages the students to value themselves more.
Photo Credit: Orchestrating Diversity
In the future, we are hoping to expand the number of students that we have by recruiting areas outside of the city of St. Louis. We would also like to expand the number of volunteers we have coming from Washington University in St. Louis. We’re aiming to encourage students to attend more than one program and to pick up more than one instrument, which is really helpful with music theory and ear training.
Amatya: After receiving funding, we’ve completed our pilot project. This project has been successful in demonstrating the viability of small scale aquaculture systems in Nepal. We worked with around 200 villagers to establish two revenue-producing fish farms and were able to train the local unemployed villagers to provide assistance with the fish farm. At this moment, the implementation of the fish farms and the work of the local villagers provide food security and family income for more than 500 poor and malnourished families.
After the harvest in December, we want to show neighboring villages the success of the fish farms so that we can begin to work on expanding the project. We would like to implement our social business model to other villages in Nepal, and we want to share our findings and our success stories with other developing countries so that they can implement this model in the future. A feasibility study is already going on in other districts of Nepal such as Gorkha, Tanahun, and Kavre.
Photo Credit: Clinton Global Initiative
Do you have any advice for new CGI U commitment-makers and applicants?
Rodriguez: One important thing to think about when developing your commitment is the establishment of realistic goals—hashing out timelines, planning out the budget, and having a clear vision of what you want to do will get your far. And for students who are in the infant stages of commitment development, it starts with asking oneself, “What do I need to change about the world or my community?” Think about the audience—what particular group of people, neighborhood, or region you want to focus on with your work.
Amaraneni: For students interested in applying to CGI U, I think it’s an incredible platform for people to get together to talk about their ideas and to realize that there is a huge community that wants to support you in this process.
Chang: I think one of the most helpful things to remember in the commitment-making process is to focus in on evaluating your project as often as possible. The emphasis shouldn’t be on numbers all the time, but it is always helpful for keeping on track and seeing how much progress is being made.
Amatya: Through CGI U, I met so many students who were passionate and committed. It’s a great chance to share your ideas and also learn from others.
More than 1,000 students representing over 300 campuses, 50 states, and more than 75 countries around the world. Apply to attend CGI U 2015 today. The final application deadline is December 1, 2014.