Friday, February 20, 2009

Environmental Studies for the Whole World

I had the great honor to attend the second annual meeting of CGIU (Clinton Global Initiative University). This is a gathering of over a thousand college students from more than sixty countries, approximately one hundred college and university presidents, and panelists from academia, business, activism, and the entertainment industry.

It was my first trip to Austin, Texas. After a harried evening of delayed flights, airline mechanical failures, and assorted mishaps, the Unity College contingent (myself and three students) arrived in Texas, pleased to be there safely, and delighted to experience some warm weather in the middle of a very cold and snowy winter.

This was a magnificent event, filled with great ideas, commitments, and energy. Essentially, the message of the conference is to promote a global spirit of community service, linked to climate change, health care, social justice, economic equity, and poverty alleviation. Each student who attends the conference is accepted by virtue of a commitment to initiate a service project. Hence this is a conference about action. The commitments range from developing prosthetics for victims of mines leftover from the Vietnam war to promoting awareness of human trafficking, and include countless (and wonderful) programs to promote international health, campus greening, community education, and so on. It's an impressive catalog of ambitious and inspiring projects.

As interesting as many of the panelists were, what I enjoyed most about the weekend was watching the extraordinary energy of the students. Although it's always instructive to spend time with other college presidents, I spent way more of my time floating among the students, asking them questions about their work, getting to know about their concerns and interests. This culminated on the final day as I joined hundreds of students on a community service project in East Austin. I spoke to people from the University of North Dakota to New York University, and they all had a well-articulated sense of dedication and commitment. I was utterly delighted with the passion and intelligence I observed. This was a terrific learning experience for me and these students (including our Unity College reps) were my teachers.

I was also very inspired by President Clinton. He was ubiquitous at the conference and he served to empower the voices of the panelists and, of course, the students. He always spoke directly to the students and his combination of eloquence, substance, and experience reflected an evocative integration of heart and mind. What a terrific way for a former President to be spending his time!

An overriding theme for President Clinton and a challenge he continually posed to the students was "how do you take your passion and turn it into a lifetime of service?" "How do you apply the skills you have to social change?" He discussed "the routinization of service," how "service makes you happy," and how gratitude reciprocates."

"Always save some space for being a citizen," he advised. And "to be pessimistic is to bet against yourself."

Clinton's mantra was leadership through action, the importance of how, the importance of deeds rather than words, and the limitless potential of everyone in the room.

Have we heard all of this before? Well, perhaps, but that doesn't lessen its significance. It was the authenticity with which Clinton approached these themes that illuminated his message. Further, with each aphorism of service he would provide a substantive anecdote reflecting a riveting public policy success. Clinton is impressively learned, and that leant an authority to his eloquence.

I look forward to keeping pace with all aspects of the Clinton Global Initiative and I was absolutely thrilled to bear witness to such a constructive and inspirational gathering.