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At Clinton Global Initiative forum, VCU students showcase local and global service projects

Three women stand.
RamPantry+ founders: Kayleigh Conroy, a junior communication arts major; Neha Pondicherry, a junior international studies major; and Megan Cary, a senior health, physical education and exercise major. (Photo by Brian McNeill, University Public Affairs)

Virginia Commonwealth University’s student-run emergency food bank, RamPantry, is now offering toiletries in addition to food, thanks to a new project launched this semester by three VCU students.

“A lot of students who can't afford to pay for food or are financially insecure also can't afford to pay for toiletries, feminine hygiene products, shampoo, conditioner, razors, soap, toothpaste and stuff like that,” said Neha Pondicherry, a junior international studies major in the School of World Studies in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Pondicherry — along with fellow Honors College students Kayleigh Conroy, a junior communication arts major in the School of the Arts, and Megan Cary, a senior health, physical education and exercise major — co-founded RamPantry+, which has been collecting donated toiletries that are distributed at RamPantry in University Student Commons.

“We all studied abroad together in Northern Ireland and part of that [program] was to come back and do an experiential learning project and try to create social change,” Conroy said. “We worked with at-risk youth in Northern Ireland, and seeing their financial insecurity kind of brought into focus for us that there are also a lot of students in need here in Richmond and at VCU.”

Last month, RamPantry+ was one of five projects created by VCU undergraduate students that was selected to take part in the Clinton Global Initiative University, an annual conference hosted by the Clinton Foundation at which students, university representatives, topic experts and celebrities come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges.

In addition to RamPantry+, this year’s cohort of VCU student teams who attended CGI U at the University of Chicago included:

  • 3D Solar Health, which is aiming to develop a 3D-printed solar power system for a hospital in Vieques, Puerto Rico, to help it operate after the electric grid was damaged in hurricanes Irma and Maria;
  • Let’s RISE (Reach and Inspire through Service and Education), an initiative to teach English to girls in orphanages in India;
  • Personalized Exploration for College Success, a program that aims to offer peer-to-peer mentorship to Richmond high school students, helping with college search, essays, letters of recommendation and testing;
  • Stepping into STEM-H, an initiative to support underprivileged students from low-income high schools in the Richmond area, helping them hone the skills needed to pursue college and careers in science, technology, engineering, math and health care, and provide them with summer research fellowships.

 

The conference provided the VCU students who are working on local and global issues an opportunity to present their ideas and to learn from peers and experts, said Garret Westlake, Ph.D., executive director of the VCU da Vinci Center, a collaboration of the Schools of the Arts and Business, and Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration.

“Programs like CGI U allow students to participate in innovation and social entrepreneurship without adding additional courses or extending their time to graduation,” Westlake said. “The da Vinci Center is committed to providing access and as many pathways as possible for students to participate in innovation and entrepreneurship during their time at VCU.”

Kelsey Steenburgh, coordinator of external affairs for the da Vinci Center, traveled with the teams this year and oversees VCU’s work to support students attending the annual conference. VCU joined the Clinton Global Initiative University Network as a partner university in 2017.

“I think the CGI U meeting really helped contextualize the students’ commitments as well as the impact they can have by being able to meet students from across the world working on similarly social-minded ventures,” Steenburgh said. “These connections and networking were invaluable to their experience and will help them as they continue progress on their commitments.”

A group of six people in business attire stand in front of signs reading "Clinton Global Initiative University."
Five teams of VCU students took part in this year's Clinton Global Initiative University, a conference hosted by the Clinton Foundation at which students, university representatives, topic experts and celebrities come together to discuss and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges. (Courtesy photo)

Omar Jafar, a sophomore biology major, is part of the team working on Stepping into STEM-H, which is in the proposal stage and aiming to launch in the spring.

“CGI U was an eye-opening occasion for me to discover the variety of projects that students have initiated across the globe,” Jafar said. “It was an opportunity for me to observe and learn about the means by which students and panel guests effectively initiated their projects. It was interesting to see the specificity and diversity of some projects as it pertained to the area of the country, or the globe, they dealt with.

“Overall, the exposure to projects dealing with issues I am not familiar with, the wealth of knowledge I gained from talking to people about how to create the most effective change, and hearing about my fellow attendees’ varying life experiences is what will stick with me most,” he said.

Even though we’re 20, 21 years old, just college juniors and seniors, we still have the opportunity to make a change in the world.

For the RamPantry+ team, two of the three co-founders attended CGI U. The experience gave them opportunities to attend workshops on expanding and improving their project, as well as to network with peers and experts.

“CGI U definitely helped us, but all the projects there are so large scale whereas ours is more small and local,” Pondicherry said. “But for me, at least, it was very eye-opening to see that even though we’re 20, 21 years old, just college juniors and seniors, we still have the opportunity to make a change in the world. There were so many students our age who are doing so many amazing things. Even if we start small, like with RamPantry+, it can actually create a difference in so many kids’ lives.”

For people interested in donating to RamPantry+, email vcurampantryplus@gmail.com.