This past weekend I joined over 1,000 college students from 80 countries, and over 75 youth organizations, at the 5th annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU) held this year at George Washington University. For many, the highlight might have been Usher summing up his sentiment about why his foundation focuses on youth empowerment by singing Whitney Houston’s “I believe the Children are our Future” (while sharing the stage with President Clinton and Secretary Albright); or the closing conversation between Jon Stewart and President Clinton.

Dr. Nicole Goldin of USAID with youth at George Washington University while attending the 5th Annual Clinton Global Initiative University this weekend. Photo Credit: USAID

For me however, it was connecting and interacting with the participants – some I learned already have a USAID connection.   Like the members of the CGI annual meeting in New York every September, all participants must make a commitment to action in order to attend – and many of these student personal stories and commitments are extraordinary.

During the opening plenary panel, along with President Clinton, Secretary Albright, and Usher, an amazing young Afghan woman named Sadiqa Saleem inspired the crowd with her personal journey from refugee camps, to the US and back  home to educate the girls and young women of Afghanistan.  “We need a coalition of fathers [like hers] to fight for the education of their daughters….”  Along with her follow-women founder, they went from educating 36 girls in an abandoned building, to creating and running  the Oruj Learning Center which teaches nearly 3400 girls in 6 primary schools, as well as executes other womens’ education and youth leadership programs.

After the panel, I spoke with Sadiqa and she told me she worked as Manager of the professional development center under the USAID Afghanistan Higher Education Program  – and that’s where she got the ideas and increased skills to enable her to establish her colleges.

I also met Alla of EGG Energy, a social enterprise founded by Harvard and MIT students dedicated to helping low-income consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa gain access to clean, affordable energy, using a unique strategy based around portable rechargeable batteries.  They were recently awarded a Stage I USAID DIV grant to test their pilot product in Tanzania. At the Exchange – where students and organizations exhibit and talk about their commitments and projects – I caught up with Melissa Wong of GlobeMed GW – the George Washington University chapter of the nationwide GlobeMed network of university students who partner with grassroots organizations around the world to improve the health of people living in poverty.  As we chatted about their important work, she was quick to tell me how they just recently won a grant from the USAID-funded Global Health Fellows Corps to support this summer’s fieldwork.

There was a ‘double whammy’ interaction when Vivian Onano, a bright young Kenyan woman participant in the Global Give Back Circle (GGBC), introduced me to Sabine, one of a number of USAID SEED fellows from Haiti studying in the US.  The GGBC is an education, mentoring, and citizenship program in Kenya that began as  CGI commitment to support 30 girls and has – with a $3.5 million USAID GDA investment with partners including Microsoft and Mastercard Foundation  – scaled to over  550 direct participants, and thousands of people positively impacted in the girls’ families, schools and communities.  I huddled with the enthusiastic proud group of SEED fellows and they told me about their homes, their studies, their commitments, and their plans. For example, Marie-Madeline has a project to increase access to education for deaf children by bringing sign language interpreters and teaching to schools.  CGIU ended, as always, with a service project to remind us all that service is an integral part of citizenship and leadership. (On that note, don’t forget about our partnership with Youth Service America for global USAID participation in Global Youth Service Day, April 20-22.)

I left the weekend with the firm belief that each of these young people is a wise investment; and they represent the kind of catalytic change that smart interventions by, with, and for youth can bring.  The kind of investments the forthcoming USAID first-ever Policy on Youth in Development looks to inspire and foster.

Dr. Nicole Goldin is Senior Advisor in PPL and Chairs the Youth Policy Task Team.