Nearly 700 higher education students representing 92 nations and 42 U.S. states gained expertise and inspiration from influential leaders to improve lives during the Clinton Global Initiative University 2023 annual meeting, hosted by Vanderbilt University March 3–5.
The CGI U annual meeting was led by former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Clinton Foundation Vice Chair Chelsea Clinton. Vanderbilt participants included Samar Ali, research professor of political science and law and co-chair of the Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy; Jonathan Gilligan, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences; Felipe Barrera-Osorio, associate professor of leadership, policy and organizations; David Owens, professor of the practice of organizational studies and Evans Family Executive Director of the Wond’ry; Belinda ‘Otukolo Saltiban, associate vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion; and Rachael Perrotta, Chancellor’s Scholar and editor-in-chief of The Vanderbilt Hustler.
Chancellor Daniel Diermeier welcomed this year’s CGI U participants during the opening plenary session at Langford Auditorium. He thanked members of the Clinton family and their foundation for Vanderbilt’s opportunity to serve as the host campus.
“At Vanderbilt, we want our students to freely argue their convictions while upholding civil discourse as a core value,” Diermeier said. “We encourage them to understand first and evaluate later because we know that real innovation requires open inquiry, divergent thought, and that today’s world needs leaders who have not only the courage to speak but to listen and learn from one another. We believe it is our social responsibility as an institution of higher learning to always be a haven for these ideals, and we’re tremendously proud to provide the forum for the immense discovery that will take place in the coming days here at CGI U.”
A highlight of the first session at Langford Auditorium was Hillary Clinton’s interview with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay member of the president’s cabinet and the youngest person to serve in his current role. He also was the second youngest mayor of South Bend, Indiana, having been elected when he was 29.
Buttigieg shared with the audience how he came to the decision while serving as mayor and being deployed as a Navy reservist to Afghanistan to become open about his sexual orientation. He was required to write a letter to his family that they would receive if he did not make it home. “One of the things I had to think about at that age was that I had no idea what it was like to be in love,” Buttigieg said.
Disclosing that he was gay put significant risk on his political career. “What seemed then like a threat or an obstacle became a huge part of what I had to offer,” Buttigieg said. He encouraged the audience to consider that what they perceive as their own obstacles in life to overcome can instead “be what you have to offer.”
Hillary Clinton noted that young people have significant political power that often goes unused because of all the “distractions, worries and wonders” during that time of life. “The young people of the world, on every continent, actually hold the balance of political power,” she said.
In closing the interview, Buttigieg emphasized the importance of young people speaking out on issues of importance at all levels of government. “You are ‘walking ambassadors’ of the long term, of the future,” Buttigieg said. “When you ask those questions, they rate a very serious answer. I hope you will deploy that extraordinary moral authority, which amounts to a kind of power whenever a decision is being made that affects your future.”
The second half of the opening session was a conversation led by Chelsea Clinton with four young adults who have not let their challenges get in the way of achieving their goals:
- Jordan Reeves, a disability advocate and changemaker whose left arm stopped growing below the elbow, invented a prosthetic arm that shoots glitter when she was 10. She is co-founder of Design With Us and is interested in using her life experiences to hone her acting skills.
- Olivia Julianna, director of politics and government affairs, Gen-Z For Change, is a Latina, openly queer, abortion rights activist. She told the story of how she raised more than $2 million for abortion access after Congressman Matt Gaetz mocked her body on social media.
- Sukhmeet Singh Sachal is a medical student, entrepreneur and founder of the Sikh Health Foundation, which aims to improve health interventions in South Asian communities across Canada. During the pandemic, this charity was recognized globally for creating awareness about COVID-19 in a culturally effective manner.
- Georgina Pazcoguin, the New York City Ballet’s first female Asian American soloist, is the author of Swan Dive: The Making of a Rogue Ballerina. She is also co-founder of Final Bow for Yellowface, a globally recognized diversity initiative, and has been outspoken in her commitment to promote equality in the ballet.
Chelsea Clinton thanked the panelists for sharing parts of their stories, including the significant changes that they have made and will continue to make in their lives. “You are clearly never too young to do something boldly different, boldly important, and to shatter a stereotype,” she said.
Working sessions during CGI U included “The Race Toward Climate Justice,” “Paving the Way for Economic Recovery during the COVID-19 Pandemic” and “Expanding Reach Through Technology.”
President Clinton moderated the closing plenary session, “When Early Inspiration Turns into Lifelong Commitment and Action.” His first conversation was with Allyson Felix, five-time Olympian and co-founder of Saysh, a footwear company that makes shoes designed for women.
While Felix was hugely successful as a track and field athlete, her priorities changed when she experienced a very difficult pregnancy. She did not feel that Nike fully supported her as a new mother. She has since become a fierce advocate for maternal protections for women as well as for equal pay for women in sports. “I think it’s long overdue and across the board it’s necessary,” Felix said. “With regards to maternal health, my dream for the future is for women, no matter your background or where you come from, to be able to find out you’re pregnant and to not have any fear associated with that. Not to be concerned if you are going to live to mother your child; having a holistic approach to maternal health and being able to have a choice for that. Those would be at the top of my list for things to get done.”
The former president’s second conversation was with Jaylen Smith, who was elected mayor of Earle, Arkansas, last year at age 18. He shadowed various Arkansas mayors while preparing to run and continues to reach out to leaders of cities that include Little Rock, Camden, El Dorado and West Memphis. Bringing back a grocery store to Earle, which Smith described as a food desert, is one of his goals. Clinton told the audience that there are two main lessons to learn from Smith’s experience: He wasn’t afraid to ask for help, and he pays attention to so many things that might be small but can have a huge impact.
In closing, President Clinton noted that nearly 700 Commitments to Action have been made by this year’s CGI U participants, and they are encouraged to reach out if they need assistance. “I really do believe that diverse groups of people make better decisions than lone geniuses, or just homogenous groups that think they know it all to start with. I think we ought to follow Mayor Smith’s lead with that. None of us should ever be embarrassed to ask for help.”
The third and final day of CGI U at Vanderbilt was called “Day of Action,” an opportunity to mobilize and provide meaningful community service on and off campus. Students and CGI U community members participated in volunteer activities through Hands On Nashville for projects with the PENCIL Foundation, Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee and the Native American Indian Association of Middle Tennessee.