CGI U students seniors John Umarov and Julio Vasquez and sophomore Chad Helland

Connections, Inspiration and Action Abound at CGI U

Seniors John Umarov and Julio Vasquez and sophomore Chad Helland joined influencers and more than 1,000 like-minded students at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) from March 6-8 in Miami.

Umarov, Vasquez and Helland, all members of St. Thomas’ chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, were accepted to the conference on their idea of producing concentrated solar power for those without access to electricity. Attendees were chosen based on their commitments to create “a new, specific and measurable plan to address pressing challenges facing campuses and communities around the world.”

Through plenary sessions, working discussions, networking events and an exhibition of ideas, these students explored partnerships and met students with similar projects, including a group from the University of Colorado working on their own solar power system to bring electricity to those who don’t have access to it.

“The best part about the experience was meeting the students from around the world,” Umarov said. “Everybody shared the same passion and interest. We met engineers from top universities like Stanford and UC-Berkley and a group from Turkey, with whom we became great friends, and made a point to meet up with each day.”

They heard from leaders in social entrepreneurship, including a Harvard professor, successful student entrepreneurs and the entire Clinton family. One of the sessions focused on the future of energy, a topic that helped Umarov, Vasquez and Helland understand the need for projects like theirs.

“This conference helped us move from the research stage to the development stage,” Vasquez said. “We will be spending more time doing hands-on testing and giving students more experience to learn and grow as engineers. The funding we receive for our project will allow us to order the necessary parts to begin building, produc(ing) power and literally bring(ing) light to people that don’t have it.”

CGI U students spent Sunday working on teams to beautify a neighborhood in Liberty City, a neighborhood with a high poverty level just north of Miami. The teams planted flowers, painted bicycles, built picnic tables and benches, and cleaned up the grounds at a middle school. Vasquez, Umarov and Helland cleaned a baseball diamond, creating a usable space for area children to play.

“It was amazing to see hundreds of people team up to help on one common goal, which was helping the community that had hosted us,” Helland said.

After spending the weekend in Miami, they said the return to St. Paul has them excited for the future of their project.

“I loved how positive and progressive the whole weekend felt,” Helland said. “It seemed like a catalyst for our project in that we were able to make connections with other teams; many were able to give us advice on certain aspects. Attending the conference has affected us in a personal way too. I can definitely say that because of attending the CGI U that I am more excited and driven to meet our commitment to produce concentrated solar power at the residential level for those in need.”

St. Thomas is a member of the CGI University Network, thanks to a commitment made by President Julie Sullivan in fall 2014. As part of that commitment, the team receives $10,000 for expenses and seed money to continue to develop their idea.