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Guest Blogger: Travis Merriweather

Travis and Rustein Merriweather recently returned from Washington, DC, where they were the first UTSA students to experience the Clinton Global Initiative University. Funding for the trip was made possible by the generosity of the Valero Energy Foundation. Here is an account of the experience from Travis, who is a junior planning a career in music and entertainment law.

On March 29th, my twin brother Rustein and I touched down at the nation's capital to participate in an amazing, life changing experience. Established in 2007 under the leadership and vision of former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the Clinton Global Initiative University brought together the next generation of world leaders with leading change-makers from across the globe for an annual meeting. My brother and I were invited in part because of our efforts to promote sustainability and our initiative to see more farmers’ markets on college campuses in order to limit the distances food must travel to get from farm to dorm room table.

The first day began with a networking dinner with other participants from the CGI U class of 2012, followed by a meet and greet with Craig Newman, founder and owner of Craigslist. As I made my way across the room meeting many of my peers and learning about their initiatives, it was hard to believe I was engaging whom I considered to be some of the world’s most promising student entrepreneurs. In response to some of the world’s most pressing challenges, CGI U participants engage in their own “commitments to action” with initiatives ranging from an effort to build an elementary school in Uganda; to "code jams," specialized groups of computer science programmers whodevelop new means of empowering communications for non-profit organizations and NGO's; and a shared commitment with a Hong Kong classmate to establish a farmer’s market on campus.

Later that evening, President Clinton moderated the opening plenary session with distinguished panelists, including Steven Knapp, President of The George Washington University; Madeleine K. Albright, the first female U.S. Secretary of State; and Usher Raymond IV, singer and founder of Usher's New Look Foundation, to name a few. The forum entitled, “The Power of Public Service,” was a question and answer forum to engage participants on new ways to support and expand the type of public service that works across nation, class, culture, political affiliation, and profession to empower marginalized communities, build unlikely partnerships and propel innovative solutions forward.

It was after this session that I had my first conversation with President Clinton. I spoke with him about my experiences at UTSA and my commitments to action which included my band Atlantis’ hosting benefit concerts in underprivileged areas. We discussed the transformative effect music had on shaping attitudes in society.

Rustein and I expressed to him that our aspirations in the entertainment industry extended beyond the simple desire for fame or wealth, and that harnessing the power of positive music could be used to alter people’s attitudes, strengthen wills, instill positive qualities such as kindness, generosity, and nobility, and ultimately transcend the boundaries of language, religion, class or race to promote our common humanity. After describing to us a recently purchased vintage saxophone from the late 1800’s, my brother joked to President Clinton that he needed to dust off the old valves and test the waters in a performance with Atlantis, to which he replied, “it would be my honor.” As a fellow musician and public servant, I could tell President Clinton strongly identified with our thinking, and in the big scheme of pressing global challenges, I was surprised in his belief that somehow Atlantis had a role to play. As the day concluded, I couldn’t help but gain a small sense of accomplishment, a sense that Rustein and I had inched that much closer towards our dreams through building sturdy alliances and enduring convictions.

The next day began with a morning plenary session titled, “The Wisdom of Failure,” moderated by Kathryn Schulz, author of “Being Wrong,” followed by a closing conversation with President Clinton and Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show. The forum presented a candid discussion on failure as both a necessary part of the entrepreneurial and design process, but also how initial failure can lead to future success. The panel included successful entrepreneurs such as Buzzcar Founder and CEO Robin Chase, President of Echoing Green Cheryl Dorsey, Sproxil CEO Ashifi Gogo, as well as co-founder and chief creative officer of Twitter Biz Stone. For me, this was one of the most insightful and uplifting seminar of the program.

Sharing private office hours with many of the panelists after the session, I was comforted to learn first-hand from some of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world that encountering failure was not only an inevitability for entrepreneurs, but a necessary rite of passage toward achieving one’s ultimate dreams. This theme was echoed again with a later conversation between my brother, President Clinton, and I where he advised, “I lost two elections, never give up on your dreams.”

The third and final day of CGI U ended with a community service project headed by President Clinton, Rebuilding Together, and the USO to provide free home repairs to low-income homeowners in need. My brother and I worked with a team of community organizers to build an ADA accessible walk rail for an elderly lady with multiple sclerosis.

It would be nearly impossible for me to summarize all of the amazing experiences and lessons learned from my time at CGI U into a single theme, but perhaps the most valuable of these lessons was a character trait that I observed in one of my mentors, Andy Nahas – that of humble leadership. Putting mission and vision before pay and prestige, I realized that the power of public service lies mostly in men and women obscure in their labor, the unsung heroes who have carried us up the long rugged path towards peace and freedom.

I want to sincerely thank Valero Energy Foundation for providing Rustein and I with the funds for our participation at CGI U. It has truly been the most enlightening, uplifting, and successful networking experience of our lives.