by Chris Farnum
At times, sickle cell disease causes such pain that Omonike “Nike” Oyelola ’17 can’t attend classes or do much of anything. The chronic condition causes red blood cells to elongate and stiffen into a sickle shape that can get stuck in limbs and organs, block blood and oxygen flow, cause organ damage, and increase infection risk.
Oyelola finds that many people, including health care workers who aren’t blood specialists, are unfamiliar with this group of relatively common genetic disorders. The disease is a major public health concern, causing hospitalizations, complications, and early deaths. About 1 percent of U.S. children with sickle cell disease die of related causes before age 3. About 5 percent of people worldwide carry trait genes for hemoglobin disorders, including sickle-cell disease, many unknowingly, leaving them at risk of passing the disease to their children without realizing the options.
“Most people I encounter don’t know a lot about sickle cell,” says Oyelola. That’s why, as a freshman, she jumped at the chance to address this pressing global challenge at the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), the Clinton Foundation’s international student conference.
The members of the CGI U network—a 55-member group joined by Nazareth in 2013 that includes Cornell, Stanford, Tufts, and Brown universities—support, mentor, and provide seed funding to student leaders/entrepreneurs who are developing solutions to public health, education, environment, poverty, and human rights problems. The only other Rochester-area member is Monroe Community College.
The strength of Oyelola’s innovative project proposal, and of five other projects pitched by Nazareth students in teams or individually, earned 11 Nazareth College students a trip to the CGI U annual conference last March. Held at Arizona State University, the three-day event made the students eligible to seek seed funding for their project from the College. About 1,000 students from around the world attended this year’s conference, though only a handful of colleges from New York state participated, based on their students being selected by CGI U. Speakers included former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Senator John McCain, diverse entrepreneurs, and activists.
Oyelola’s “Sickle the Cycle” project was further honored as one of 100 exemplary projects showcased during a poster session, out of the 695 accepted at the conference. CGI U requires each project to have specific action steps and to set results that are measurable within one or two years. Oyelola set numerical goals for people tweeting #sicklethecycle, “liking” her Sickle the Cycle page on Facebook, getting tested for sickle cell trait, and for her fundraising. She also seeks to train 50 health care professionals.
Being part of a global conference intended to promote, advance, and develop innovative solutions to pressing global challenges aligns well with Nazareth’s focus on community service, cross-cultural engagement, and developing a global mindset.
Nazareth got noticed at the conference. CGI U’s network leader directed other college representatives to talk to Adam Lewandowski, associate director of Nazareth College’s Center for Civic Engagement, to learn how a small college had gotten so many students involved.
Nazareth has a year-round culture of community involvement—which earned the College recognition in 2013 as one of only five schools to receive the President’s Award from the Corporation for National and Community Service, the highest recognition for community service in the nation.
In 2013, one Nazareth professor and two students attended the sixth annual CGI U conference along with a representative of the Pittsford-based Golisano Foundation, to observe and learn. For 2014, Nazareth invited students to submit CGI U project proposals; provided faculty, staff, and resources for students to get involved in CGI U; and required projects to have a faculty, staff, or community partner as an advisor for built-in guidance. Eighteen Nazareth students applied by proposing 10 projects, termed Commitments to Action, of which CGI U chose six projects.
“Our students were really ready to take on this opportunity,” says Lewandowski.
At a post-conference meeting in Peckham Hall, Nazareth President Daan Braveman promised the 11 students, “We’re going to continue that level of commitment.” He added, “I think higher-education institutions have an obligation to be making a difference in their communities … and preparing students to build the world anew.”
The Nazareth students returned from Arizona fired up for the health, education, youth empowerment, and environmental projects they’re pursuing. The experience boosted their knowledge of issues, strategies, and resources; increased their confidence; and helped them make valuable connections.
“I’ve had my passion reignited,” says Jacqueline Lindsey ’15G, a social work graduate student pursuing a maternal health project in a South Sudan village. In addition to attending helpful lectures, Lindsey met and learned from a midwife from Saudi Arabia. The conference also reinforced Lindsey’s career choice. “I’m doing what I’m meant to do in life.”
Attending seminars on global problems such as AIDS and on transitional justice in post-conflict societies was eye opening. Networking with other college students who are intent on improving the world—and who traveled from nearly 300 colleges and universities in 80 countries—was exhilarating. The speakers were inspiring and thought-provoking.
“These are the resources that only a former president of the United States can bring together,” notes Lewandowski.
In a written statement at the end of the conference, Bill Clinton says, “Changing the world is a group enterprise. Positive networks of cooperation can do anything, and the more than 1,000 students who attended CGI U this year are proof of that. I look forward to seeing how this year’s commitments will have an impact on their campuses, in their communities, and around the world.”
At the discussion with Braveman, Nazareth students glowed as they described making connections to help their efforts, learning about funding options, attending invigorating seminars, strategizing, and bonding as a group. CGI U’s culminating day of service—when some Nazareth students planted flowers with Chelsea Clinton in vacant Phoenix lots turned into urban gardens—set the tone for getting to work.
Gina Bessing ’14 appreciated seeing students back at CGI U for their second or third year and hearing how far they’d already gone with their projects. Success stories included a job-training program for ex-offenders and a soccer ball that generates and stores electricity when kicked to power lamps for homework after dark.
One of Bessing’s partners on a yoga-based youth project, Olivia Harrigan ’15, decided days after the conference to shift her major to community youth development, which had been her minor. She says of the conference, “There were so many people there who were so passionate. I was in awe of the projects.” The speakers were motivating, and, she told Braveman, “I also was completely inspired by the people in this room. Now there’s this bond between all of us. I want to be involved with all of their projects.”
The students saw ways for some of the Nazareth efforts to connect. A project to empower children of incarcerated parents through life skills and self-worth activities could include yoga and environmental sustainability workshops, collaborating with two other Nazareth projects.
Nicholas Gerbino ’17, an anthropology major who’s working to educate people on the negative environmental effects of common consumer goods, embraced the opportunity to learn from others. He was struck by a CGI U session that counseled against reinventing the wheel and advised instead aligning with and building on efforts that already have strong results.
Before the conference, Congresswoman Louise Slaughter met with the students at Nazareth. She praised each project, asked questions, and thanked students for their commitment to make a difference in the world. “This is just the beginning for you,” she told the students. “I promise you, you will never be the same.” She also put Oyelola in touch with Rochester’s WDKX radio station, which led to an on-air interview with Oyelola in April about sickle cell disease and about her CGI U experience.
All of the Nazareth projects have a connection to the lives of at least one of the students who proposed them. The father of Danielle Ashton ’15 was incarcerated when she was young. Her project, driven also by her social work major, seeks to turn around the increased tendency for children whose parents are behind bars to get involved in crime and to end up in prison.
Danielle Mensing ’15, a psychology major, grew concerned about long-term care after her grandmother suffered a debilitating brain injury. “The current models for elder care are not sustainable or effective,” says Mensing.
Three Nazareth students who want to bring yoga and mentoring to youth who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to the practice are themselves enthusiasts of yoga and its physical and spiritual benefits. Nazareth has had a yoga revolution in the past couple of years, with eight faculty and staff members teaching 10 classes weekly on campus to more than 200 students, faculty, and staff.
Kumba Tachequee ’16G, who’s working on maternal health with a South Sudan health clinic, got interested in social and economic justice issues because she was resettled to the United States as a teenage refugee from Sierra Leone, another African country, due to civil war. She and her Nazareth classmates connected with the crisis in South Sudan through refugee Palath Thornchar, one of the “lost boys” driven out of Panrieng, South Sudan in 1987 by violent civil war. He relocated to Rochester in 2001 and raised funds to build the clinic that opened in Panrieng in August 2013.
The spirit of networking and the confidence boost continued past the conference. While traveling back to Nazareth, Oyelola struck up a conversation with another person who had a CGI U luggage tag. He turned out to have a friend who’s a Kenyan model in New York City, and Oyelola promptly contacted her about her sickle cell project. The disease mainly affects African Americans in the United States, but also widely affects Middle Easterners, Hispanics, and people from the Mediterranean region.
Braveman encouraged the students, saying part of what he hopes young people get during college is the chance to discover issues that fire them up. “Go with your passion,” he advised. “That’s what I hope you’ll do.”
Jed Metzger, Ph.D., associate professor of social work and advisor to the South Sudan project, says he is glad Nazareth is standing behind the students and this conference opportunity. “The college made a commitment to get them there. I think it says a lot about where we want to go as a college.”
Chris Farnum is a content writer and editor for Nazareth’s marketing department.
Danielle Ashton ’15 proposed a project that empowers children of incarcerated parents.
Adam Lewandowski, associate director of the Center for Civic Engagement, introduced himself to Bill Clinton and said he was from Nazareth College in upstate New York. The response: “I know where you guys are.” Learn how to get involved.
Jacqueline Lindsey ’15G, Kumba Tachequee ’16G, and Kaelen Austin ’15G, all social work graduate students, are partnering with South Sudan Village Care Foundation to reverse high maternal and infant death rates through safe birthing practices. The students plan to create a culturally informed birthing practices manual using World Health Organization guidelines. They also hope to offer virtual training.
Gina Bessing ’14, Olivia Harrigan ’15, and Brianna Miller ’14 want to bring yoga to young people who would not otherwise have access to yoga in their lives, to promote health and wellness, self-worth, self-esteem, and self-advocacy.
Danielle Ashton ’15 and Alyson Durant ’15 want to empower children of incarcerated parents through workshops on educational aspirations, healthy living, and self-value.
Nicholas Gerbino ’17 is working to educate people on the negative environmental effects of common consumer goods.
Danielle Mensing ’15 believes elders and youth can have an impact by learning about the issues and brainstorming solutions at her intergenerational dialogue events. Learn more »
Omonike “Nike” Oyelola ’17 is planning education events for the public and health care providers about the chronic and debilitating effects of sickle cell disease, and blood testing to help healthy people discover whether they carry the genetic trait and learn how to decrease the risk they will pass on the disease. She's holding a fundraiser Oct. 25, 2014.