Combatting brain drain. Creating safer infrastructure and reducing disease. Supporting peers struggling with mental health issues. Equalizing access to quality education.

These are big, complex issues — also known as “wicked problems” — with no one-size-fits-all or simple solution. Addressing them can be overwhelming. But a cohort of seven Virginia Tech students working on four different projects are determined to address these wicked problems in communities on campus and abroad.

The weekend of Oct. 19-21, the cohort traveled to the University of Chicago in Illinois to attend the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) annual meeting with more than 1,000 college students from around the world. The connections they made at CGI U allow them to learn from fellow students to enhance their projects or team up and work on an issue together. Students were selected through a competitive application process in the spring, when they submitted proposals to answer CGI U’s charge: develop a novel solution to a pressing global issue and implement a project to create social change. Projects can range in scope from tackling an issue on campus to leading a country in a movement.

According to the Clinton Foundation website, President Bill Clinton launched the Clinton Global Initiative University in 2007 to engage the next generation of leaders on college campuses around the world. This yearly meeting allows students, university representatives, and topic experts to unite in one place to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. 

Throughout the weekend, the Virginia Tech students attended plenary sessions and networking events. They also met in sub-groups led by previous CGI U participants serving as mentors that connected 2018 participants based on one of this year’s five project topics: education, environmental and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation, and public health. 

“Meeting like-minded people with great ideas and working in different projects around the world to empower communities was very inspirational to me,” said Jonilda Bahja, a Ph.D. student in Pamplin College of Business and member of the 2018 CGI U cohort. “We networked with passionate change makers in the field of educational access to share information related to our project and learn from their experience as well." 

Virginia Tech’s 2018 cohort for the Clinton Global Initiative University’s annual meeting include:

·         Asma Ibrahim, a sophomore studying neuroscience, and Razan Salih, a sophomore studying business information technology, who are committed to reform the restroom system in Sudan, starting in the city of Abu Hamad where both have family members. The goal is to replace dirt-hole latrines with ceramic toilets, to eliminate the latrines’ high risk of collapsing and potential for spreading diseases.  

·         Anjali Shingala, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering; Josh Artz, a junior majoring in civil engineering; and Suhani Pant, a junior majoring in computer engineering, who seek to address mental health issues among engineering students in their living-learning communities by implementing a network of peer advocates to support fellow students and educate their community about mental health.  

·         Ainsley Patrick, a junior triple majoring in psychology, sociology, and criminology and a member of Service Without Borders, who is working in Tanzania on projects related to youth empowerment and girls’ education. Specifically, the group is partnering with local organizations to expand the Engaruka Primary School.

·         Bahja and her collaborator Frida Bahja, a Ph.D. student at University of Central Florida, who aim to create a platform to connect Albanian scientists and academics living abroad with academics living in Albania to initiate collaboration opportunities and foster scientific research in Albanian universities. 

“This group is so passionate about their projects and the issues they address,” said Catherine Cotrupi, VT Engage’s assistant director for student engagement and this year’s CGI U faculty representative at Virginia Tech. “The meeting offered them an opportunity to connect with peers doing innovative work and see both their particular social issues and all oppression are inter-connected.”

This is Virginia Tech’s first year participating as a CGI U Network member, which requires institutions to commit a minimum of $10,000 to the students and projects selected for the annual meeting.

After a weekend of inspiration, the cohort returned to Blacksburg eager to continue their work and implement what they learned.  

“The weekend helped me re-energize and inspired me to continue to work diligently on an existing project,” said Patrick. “CGI U allowed me to delve deeper into the changes that our organization is actually trying to make and helped me specifically pinpoint what we are trying to achieve. 

Applications for next year’s CGI U cohort begin in January 2019 and are open to all Virginia Tech students. “Students should apply to this program if they are looking to find mentors and other students who are working on similar projects,” said Pant, “Not only did I walk away with connections, I also got to offer my skills to other students' projects.”

Written by Lindsey Gleason.