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Students can save the world: Annual conference focuses on sustainable development

The annual Millennium Campus Conference brought 1,200 students and international global development superstars to Boston to inspire student action to achieve the UN's Millennium Development Goals.
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Paul Farmer of international NGO Partners in Health stands with student activist Mark Arnoldy at the fourth annual Millennium Campus Conference, which focuses on inspiring student groups to work together to face global development issues. (Millennium Campus Network/Courtesy)

A coalition of American students is leading the charge against global poverty. The Millennium Campus Network combines student activism and global partnerships with thought leaders, corporations and NGOs to work toward the loftiest of goals: eradicating extreme poverty and finding sustainable solutions for global development. 

Led by 26-year-old powerhouse Sam Vaghar, MCN works with groups on campuses across the country that focus on achieving the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals. MCN helps student groups organize themselves and also acts as a liaison between student organizations, grantmakers and mentors at similar organizations overseas. 

At the fourth annual Millennium Campus Conference, held this week at Boston's Northeastern University, Vaghar and his army of over 100 staff and volunteers worked for months to bring together some of the biggest minds in the global development field for a day of learning, thinking and inspiration, along with over 1,200 students from all over world. Delegations from Liberia and Pakistan were in attendance, said Outreach Director and Tufts University senior BeckyLee Dell, along with individual international students. 

The Millennium Development Goals have a deadline looming in 2015, and some, like Vaghar and his partners, think it's time to stop depending on the UN for movement and instead harness the energy of student groups to really create change.

"One of the things the UN can do, first, is begin to move away from all of the instruments, the declarations, and look to action," said conference keynote speaker and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Leymah Gbowee. "For too long, we've seen the Millennium Development Goals resolution become a 'Decade of Education' and all of these things, but it doesn't get down to the ground. I think we need declarations that create a roadmap to transform our lives and work to actualize those roadmaps." 

Vaghar spoke to the Northeastern auditorium, which was so packed with students that some sat cross-legged in the aisles, laden with laptops and backpacks, while they listened with rapt attention to the MCN Executive Director.

He explained that students have just as much to teach as some of the best-known names on the stage, something he's learned over the past five years of working with MCN partners and traveling the world, most recently to Bosnia with the US State Department. "Leading is a mutual process. We think it's 'what can they teach us?' No, it's what can we teach them."

The focus of the organization is on "effective, sustainable student organizing," according to Vaghar, but pushing students to put their actions where their mouths are is an over-arching goal. Knowing that the power of the crowd can have significant impact is the driving force behind MCN, which works with their member organizations on best practices, fundraising, and technical training so that when students graduate, they're armed with the knowledge to tackle big issues and connections with such partners as Oxfam, USAID, and Peace Corps. 

This year's conference paired students with such global development luminaries as Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, among many others, in a series of panels and hands-on workshops, so professionals in the field could connect on a personal level with students and work together to brainstorm solutions. 

"I'm tired of meeting students who think they have it all figured out and walk in [to tackle global issues] with bravado and cockiness, thinking 'I know how to save the world'," said Vaghar, who was invited by President Obama to be part of the White House Youth Roundtables Initiative last year. "You don't know how to save the world. And it's not about us, [the students]. The real focus needs to be on outcomes." 

Indeed, such bigwigs as noted economist Dr. Jeffrey Sachs and Gbowee, whom Vaghar begged for months to come to Boston for the event, spoke to this effect during Saturday afternoon's keynote speeches, acknowledging that student action on issues such as ending hunger and promoting environmental sustainability pushes the world ever closer to achieving the goals set out by the UN in 2000. 

Ending extreme poverty, the first of the goals, was met in 2010, according to a status report by the UN that was released in July. The number of people living on less than $1.25 per day is now less than half the 1990 rate, although goals like hunger and child health still present challenges. 

Sachs, who sits on the board of MCN and is an award-winning economist and author, as well as a special economic advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, implored the students to "get those phones working," insisting that as the world moves "from the era of economic development to one of sustainable development," it will be the youth that make the difference. 

"For development, peace, social justice to take place, we need to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty," said Gbowee, reiterating the importance collaborative student action on the ground. "It doesn't take a million dollars to make a difference. It takes a commitment to one human being."

In a short talk before heading out to speak to the gathered students (who described her on Twitter as "amazing" and "a real role model"), Gbowee told GlobalPost that the biggest issue standing in the way of reaching the Millennium Goals is a lack of educated, working young people. 

"We know that one of the biggest threats against peace and security in our part of the world is unemployed youth," she said. "And we can see that many things are contributing to this. Most times, countries and people and advocates decide, 'We will target the UN,' but I think it is also time that communities move away from looking to the UN to solve the issues and start taking issues into their own hands."

It's this exact line of thinking that inspired Vaghar to launch MCN five years ago. Without a full-time job and living at home with his parents in Massachusetts, Vaghar embodies what a 21st century humanitarian looks like, smartphone in hand. He's a genuinely generous and passionate person, with just enough ego to drive him forward through 15-hour days, but not enough that he doesn't realize the enormity of the task ahead or appreciate every member of his team - and let them know it. 

"This is my life," he said. "I love what I'm doing, it's a tremendous honor. It's hard work, but it's so rewarding, and when 1,000 students show up, you're on the right track."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/rights/students-can-save-the-world-annual-conference-focuses-sustainable