ST. LOUIS — More than 1,000 college students from across the country and abroad descended Saturday on Washington University in search of inspiration, affirmation and a dose of philanthropic generosity.
They came at the behest of former President Bill Clinton, whose philanthropic foundation has hosted the Clinton Global Initiative University for the past six years. Actors Matthew Perry and Jada Pinkett Smith and comedian Stephen Colbert joined Clinton, his daughter, Chelsea, and a host of business and civic leaders and human rights activists at a series of workshops and panel discussions on topics as varied as world hunger, prescription drug abuse and the spiraling national debt.
Student participants said they felt both inspired and challenged. And with $400,000 worth of startup funds available to those deemed to design the most worthy projects, many used the opportunity to pitch service projects to potential donors. Each attendee was required to make a "Commitment to Action" with a community project focusing on education, the environment, human rights, poverty or public health.
"There was a time when going to college for me was just a dream," said Derrius Quarles, a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta who grew up as a foster child in Chicago. "There are millions of dreamers out there today. Let's go fund some dreams."
At Morehouse, Quarles and a classmate have developed Million Dollar Scholar, a program designed to connect disadvantaged high school students with college preparation resources, from online tutors who help craft application essays to tips on scholarship sources. The 22-year-old was making his third trip to the Clinton Global Initiative University.
"A lot of people (back home) don't see my vision," said Quarles, who plans to attend Georgetown University for graduate school and then embark on a career in international development. "They're not natural innovators. It just gets discouraging.
"To come here and meet people who have created something from nothing, that's reinvigorating," he added.
Former President Clinton, whose concluding interview with Colbert was taped a future episode of "The Colbert Report," framed the purpose of the summit bluntly: "You guys have all the ideas and not much money."
Moments later, billionaire retired banker Peter Peterson joined the ex-president to honor five University of Virginia students for their efforts to promote awareness of the federal debt on the Charlottesville campus. The student group plans to use its $10,000 prize toward debt-related research stipends and to supplement internships, said team leader Lena Shi, a graduate student in public policy.
Like Clinton, Peterson challenged the students to act.
"Your generation has something others don't have," said Peterson, who helped found the Blackstone Group private equity firm. "You have moral power on your side."
For Shi, the St. Louis weekend means a chance to puncture the stereotype of the disinterested, self-absorbed college student. On Sunday, participants will take part in a community service project at Gateway STEM High School, a city magnet school that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math.
"Students are not necessarily disinterested," she said. "We just have to find the right medium."