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Clinton: New Breed of Student Activism Can Make a Difference

Hundreds of college students, nonprofit groups and college administrators are gathering this weekend in New Orleans for the inaugural meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative University — the latest project of former President Clinton’s William J. Clinton Foundation.

The project’s goal is to push and help college students take on global problems with concrete steps and commitments, in much the same way the original Clinton Global Initiative has been working with leaders in government and business since it began in 2005.

CGI U is focusing on projects in four main areas: energy and climate change; human rights and peace; global health; and poverty alleviation.

Among the 700 or so students who have already committed to projects are a Swarthmore College student working on water quality in Venezuela; a University of Arkansas student creating soccer teams in for teenagers in Cameroon; and a University of Alabama student working with the campus bookstore to move from plastic to canvas and mesh bags.

Clinton spoke with The Associated Press on Thursday about the project and about student activism. His responses are excerpted here.

AP: College students have lots of energy and passion for service. What’s the missing piece this initiative is trying to give them?

CLINTON: Number one, I want to convince as many colleges as possible that they ought to have a very organized effort to develop a non-governmental movement on their campuses, maybe even their own non-governmental organizations that brand a campus by its service, just like campuses are branded by academic excellence or their athletic teams. I want them to start thinking about that what kind of service they’ll be known for.

Secondly, I hope this thing will grow and we’ll have more and more colleges involved, and citizen service will be viewed as an integral part of college life, as something everybody just does, because it’s an important part of being a citizen, it’s an important part of learning.

The third thing is if we do it right, there are some of these areas where the sheer mass of intelligence and energy and numbers of young people on our college campuses can make a real dent in the problems.

AP: Such as?

CLINTON: Energy and climate change here in the United States. Six percent of the greenhouse gasses in America are produced by institutions of higher education. If they take the lead in models of clean energy, that can be can be copied by government buildings and the private sector all over the country. And I think they can have a big impact in mobilizing America to make peace in other areas of the world just as they have on the Iraq war in this election.

AP: How does today’s college student activism compare to when you were in school?

CLINTON: When I was in college, most of the activism was focused on trying to get political changes involving civil rights and the war in Vietnam, and it was more direct action, working in campaigns, participating in demonstrations, marching in civil rights marches.

In this generation there is a lot of that almost on steroids because of the efforts college students are able to make in accessing the Internet and reinforcing their numbers … and in political activism and campaigns. They’ve had an even more pronounced effect in these caucus states because they’ve had more time and effort to do that.

(There’s a) level of organized effort to do things about social problems not in opposition to politics so much as independent of it, whether it’s poverty alleviation or helping poor kids in schools with tutoring programs or doing something on the global warming front. All of that is much more advanced in this generation than it was in mine.

AP: What is the most important issue affecting college students that will be in front of the next president?

CLINTON: Those are two separate questions. I think the biggest issue affecting college students is how we can get more people to go and stay with tuition going up 75 percent in this decade for college education. I think we’re going to have to crack down on some of these abuses in the private student loan program and go back to more affordable student loans like those we had when I was president.

But over the long run I think the important thing is whether the institutions of higher education can maintain America’s lead in research and technology, when we’ve made it more difficult for foreign students to come here, when we don’t have as many of our kids moving into the breaking fields of science and technology.

If we could close the gender gap and if African-American and Latino kids went into science and technology and engineering fields, in the same rates as, let’s say, Asian and Middle Eastern males do, and European males, then we would close our gender gap and our ethnic gap, and we would be developing a work force with the skills we need.

I also think colleges need to have more funding in basic funding and research and less politics, from stem cell research and human genome research to global warming research and research in materials science.

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