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Leadership Lessons Expand During Pandemic for Northwestern Students

Julianne Beck | June 12, 2020
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Northwestern University student social entrepreneurs embraced unexpected learning opportunities this academic year, as unforeseen global challenges arose in the midst of their participation in the Clinton Global University Initiative (CGI U) leadership program.

As members of the CGI U Class of 2020, the eight Northwestern undergraduate participants began a year-long journey in the fall of 2019 that features a robust online curriculum and ample opportunity for teamwork and collaboration. The first requirement to participate is that students develop a Commitment to Action (CTA), a social entrepreneurship program they must develop and implement, either as an individual or as a team. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) supports Northwestern students in their efforts to create and implement CTAs.

“My involvement with CGI U this year taught me a lot about how to foster relationships with other people, especially leaders and other organizations,” noted senior Giovanni Gamalong. “My mentor, who is focused on education and public health, provided me with many insights about how to approach curriculum making and implementation, which is extremely pertinent to my CTA.” Gamalong set out to run a program called AccessEd, which enhances access to selective Chicago Public Schools for low-income, first-generation middle school students living in underserved Chicago neighborhoods through a college mentoring program.

Each student was matched with a mentor and a cohort of peers from around the world, which became increasingly important as the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic required a shift to remote work for all in the spring.

“Like many other projects, COVID-19 disrupted our project,” shared seniors Mariel Tang and Nicole Tanda, who set out to measure Northwestern’s annual virtual water usage for their CTA in order to improve campus sustainability. “Though we felt frustrated that we could not continue our project, we learned valuable lessons on leadership. Namely, project management requires flexibility and creativity. Currently, we are working to redesign our project to meet the same goals we had, measuring indirect water usage on Northwestern's campus, but making alterations including using previous year's data.”

Along with leadership lessons, students found ways to innovate to advance their work.

“Facing disappointment and adversity with the new challenges of being remote, we actually found new and more efficient methods to collaborate on software development online,” offered senior Saif Bhatti, whose project addresses wildlife poaching in African nature reserves through bio-acoustic monitoring technology. “Overall, we are emerging from the effects of the pandemic more united and streamlined in our workflows.”

Although required components of the CGI U virtual curriculum continued throughout the year, participants’ plans to gather with the entire CGI U Class of 2020 for a conference at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland this past April were transitioned to a virtual “CGI U At Home” event focused on the global response to COVID-19.

“The change of plans from an in-person event to a virtual conference taught me a number of unexpected lessons about leadership,” noted sophomore Amy Drake. “One of the most inspiring messages I received from the conference was not to be afraid to plan for, or to talk about, the future. Even with so much uncertainty, it was really affirming to hear from leaders that we (the CGI U participants) really do have the skills it takes to be leaders ourselves, and that we should continue to project our creativity and resourcefulness into plans for the future.” Drake works on a team with senior Simone Laszuk and first-year student Ahlaam Moledina to lead RISE: Reducing Inequalities in Sustainable Engagement.

Along the way, through transitions both expected and unexpected, the CGI U participants from Northwestern gathered experiences that they say will serve them well in the future.

“Managing expectations has been a very important part of my project, due to the coronavirus,” noted sophomore Hannah Caplan, who runs The Rainbow Project: Supporting Public Education. “I have embraced the understanding that I don't have all of the answers and that reaching out to more experienced people doing amazing social impact and education related work is important in informing how I proceed with my project. The coronavirus pandemic definitely has made it difficult to connect with people and continue moving my project forward, but the need is always there and it is important to continue to satisfy those needs.” Caplan’s CTA project facilitates corporation-funded programs that provide products and/or services to underfunded, under-resourced schools in order to supplement and satisfy unmet student needs at home, helping to fight drop-out rates and support academic achievement. “Through my project, I have gained a new understanding regarding the intricacies of social systems and the opportunities to innovate at each corner,” she added.

According to Ahlaam Moledina, a member of a three-person student team, “Being the only first-year [student] in the Northwestern cohort came with its share of anxiety and imposter syndrome, but I've grown in my voice and leadership since. I realised through this process that I am extremely passionate about our Commitment to Action and that accessibility in sustainable and ethical practises is something I'm determined to continue working towards.”

“In my involvement, I have gathered a greater appreciation for the work going on in institutions across the world,” noted senior Simone Laszuk, who works with Moledina and Drake. “It is so easy to get lost in your own project but seeing and hearing other projects in my cohort really was my favorite take away from the program. I was so inspired by the work other students were doing and the collaborative efforts of CGI helped me better my project as well!”

In order to graduate from the program and earn a CGI U Commitment Maker Seal, students are expected to measure and report out on the direct impact of their CTA. Student progress report submissions are due in October and graduation from the program will take place in December 2020.

In 2014, Northwestern University joined the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) with organizational representation from ISEN in the CGI University Network.