With a song and message of service, CGI U kicks off

Former President Bill Clinton praised GW for establishing a culture of service at the kick-off forum for the Clinton Global Initiative University. Marie McGrory | Hatchet Staff Photographer

This post was written by Hatchet reporter Kelly Quinn.

Former President Bill Clinton and a panel made up of a pop star, a former secretary of state and University President Steven Knapp had a message for the crowd full of budding entrepreneurs Friday: take a leap.

The star power of the Clinton Global Initiative University hit Foggy Bottom in the conference’s first night, drawing a packed crowd to the Smith Center to hear a message stating that making a difference begins with taking risks.

“What you’re doing can change the lives of thousands and thousands of people,” Clinton, who served as the moderator, said.

Clinton, Knapp, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Usher and activists Rye Barcott and Sadiqa Basiri Saleem shared their experiences and gave doses of advice to 1,200 students who will spend the next two days learning to make a difference in human rights, the environment, public health and education.

Students from dozens of countries and all 50 states earned seats at the conference after pitching ideas in January to address global or community-based problems. Projects from students at GW range from sustainable bicycles made of bamboo to homeless food delivery. About 1,000 others from the general student population nabbed tickets to the event.

Clinton lauded GW’s steadfast commitment to service, and said few schools have “integrated this as part of the core of the university like you have.”

Knapp and Saleem, who is the executive director of an organization that educates women in Afghanistan, emphasized the importance of female empowerment. From his seat between Albright and Usher, Knapp called women’s education the key to solving many of the world’s problems.

Albright encouraged students to find a project and a cause, but that sticking with it was crucial.

“Americans are the most generous people in the world – with the shortest attention span,” Albright said.

Saleem, who put women’s education at the forefront at a young age, echoed Albright’s call for action over formal academic training, adding that a Ph.D. is unnecessary to make a difference.

“There are always ways to work and make a change,” she said.

The forum kicked off the three-day conference, aimed at mobilizing students to turn their commitments to action into tangible projects.

Sophomore and CGI U participant Makonnen Jackman said attending the conference would benefit him in his project “from the idea phase to the implementation phase.”

He said he was struck by Usher’s story of someone believing in him as a child.

“One person taking interest in someone and helping them move forward can be more valuable than you really know,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, one student asked Usher via Twitter about his inspiration, noting that “singing the answer is encouraged.”

He humbly took the request, belting his rendition of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.”

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