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Students offer, receive solutions at Clinton Global Initiative University

  • Clinton and Colbert
    Clinton and Colbert  Former President Bill Clinton and Comedy Central show host Stephen Colbert closed the Clinton Global Initiative University weekend with an hour-long conversation.  Courtesy Brianna Buch
  • The W&M SPIMA team
    The W&M SPIMA team  This photo was taken during the team's visit to Fodome, a village on the border of Togo and Ghana. The seven students went to the village to help build its first public toilet.  Courtesy Brianna Buch
  • Representing AidData in St. Louis
    Representing AidData in St. Louis  From left to right: Jaclyn Goldschmidt '13, Alexandria Foster '15 and Charles Perla '13.  Courtesy Jaclyn Goldschmidt
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Meredith Boulos ’14 and Brianna Buch ’15 huddled over cups of coffee, scanning an application form that had been given to them by a member of their William & Mary SPIMA team – that’s Student Partnership for International Medical Aid.

To be held at Washington University in St. Louis from April 5-7, the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) would bring together nearly 1,200 college students – five of whom, ultimately would come from W&M -- committed to making a difference in five focus areas: education, environment and climate change, peace and human rights, poverty alleviation and public health. In addition to President Bill Clinton and daughter, Chelsea, featured participants would include dozens of leaders known for their interest and work on a broad spectrum of world issues.

{{youtube:medium|25l812tdJCc, W&M's SPIMA joins Clinton Global Initiative dialogue.}}

“Challenging” might be the best way to describe the process they’d have to go through to win acceptance to the CGl U. More than six hours later, they had finished five essays regarding different aspects of their commitment to health-focused community development work in the Volta region of Ghana.

“We’d never broken it down like that for someone who was outside of our team,” Boulos said.

The students detailed how SPIMA began as a medicine-distribution project, before ethnographic research uncovered that villagers in that region of Ghana didn't need medical supplies. They needed, and wanted, sanitation. From that research, the W&M SPIMA team compiled a list of projects, the first of which was started a year ago. The team helped build a 12-stall public toilet in the village of Fodome. The team now has a partnership with Fodome in which they involve villagers in deciding which project should be next on the list. It's a different approach, they say, from that traditionally employed by non-government organizations (NGOs), which decide what's best for the communities they touch, with little knowledge of what residents view as their biggest problem or need. Additionally, what information is gleaned comes almost exclusively from villagers with the best English skills, not, as Boulos said, “from the most marginalized people living on the outskirts.”

The SPIMA team took time to gain a working knowledge of Ewe, the language spoken in that portion of Ghana. All of this they explained in great detail in the essays the CGIU admissions committee received.

“When we found out we were going and found out what an honor it was, that was really exciting for us,” Buch said. “There were a lot of people (there) interested in what we were doing.”

The AidData story

The SPIMA team wasn’t W&M’s only representative. Three members from an AidData team, as well as AidData Director of Operations David Trichler, also attended.

“The conference had a tremendous impact on all of us,” AidData student leader Jaclyn Goldschmidt ’13 said. “I felt so energized and inspired by the panels, particularly an introductory panel that discussed using technology to impact and empower people around the world. It was an incredible affirmation of the power of big data and AidData's work, and helped me to appreciate the community of people approaching a lot of different but really important problems from many angles.” 

Upon their arrival, all participants were asked to write down their “commitment.” Buch and Boulos wrote “Community development that starts where the people are!” Goldschmidt’s AidData commitment was entitled “Tracking Chinese development finance to Africa: AidData's media-based data collection project."The AidData team stands in front of St. Louis' iconic arch.

The AidData project grew from one simple question: How could media reports be used to gather project-level information about international development?

Faculty, staff and students at AidData collaborated to produce a full-fledged methodology and dataset of more than 1,700 Chinese development finance projects in Africa. Desiring to know where that money goes and what projects they target, the team has created the largest and most transparent database of Chinese aid in Africa.

“CGI U emphasizes the 'how' of making a difference in the world, so I learned a lot about the approaches that others are taking in their work.” Goldschmidt said. “I was particularly blown away by the work of an undergraduate who designs portable nanotechnology for use in mobile clinics, and some others who are analyzing climate change in the developing world."

Global sanitation a disaster

Buch and Boulos focused on the global sanitation crisis, attending a panel discussion moderated by PBS Newshour correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro and featuring Edward Breslin, chief executive officer of Water for People, and Gary White, co-founder and CEO of

The grim facts reported are that an estimated 2.5 billion people lack access to clean and safe bathrooms, resulting in diarrheal diseases that kill more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

“The comparison made was that there are more cellphones in developing countries than there are toilets, but there’s a reason for that,” Buch said. “Cell phone providers say, ‘Here’s a product. If you pay me, I’ll give you a service.’ Sanitation (companies) and engineers should learn from business.”

The students said that just as much information was gained from interacting with students from other universities who had similar interests.

SPIMA's Brianna Buch working in the village of Fodome“We talked to a group of engineers from Purdue who are really interested in the idea of having a social scientist on the team with engineers so that you understand how what you do actually fits into the proper cultural and social context of the community,” Buch said. “They’d never thought of that before. Part of what was neat for us was (talking to) a range of people working on extremely technical issues and being able to bring our theories and questions to them. So many people are thinking of so many different aspects of the same problem that you wind up with a better solution.”

The weekend’s closing conversation featured President Clinton and Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert, held at Washington University’s fieldhouse. The program lasted 60 minutes, the first 30 more tongue-in-cheek than serious, the rest an introspective look at Clinton’s views on the problems he and his initiative have chosen to tackle.

Boulos and Buch say they plan to attend the 2014 CGI U, but they’ll have to go through the selection process again, explaining the progress they’ve made on their commitment how it has changed and prove that they’ve put forth their best effort.

“It was a great experience,” Boulos said. “Frankly I was shocked at the diversity of people there and the diversity of things they were passionate about. It was very enlightening.”