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A new focus for networking students: global poverty

Brandeis group leads effort to harness activism

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Manny Veiga
Globe Correspondent / April 10, 2008

Don't tell Sam Vaghar that today's generation is apathetic.

At 21, the Newton North High School graduate and senior at Brandeis University is the executive director of a growing nonprofit organization dedicated to tackling the planet's major problems. The Millennium Campus Network, which unites organizations from a number of Greater Boston schools, is entirely run by its student members.

Vaghar and Brandeis sophomore Seth Werfel, a New York City native, founded the network last August. The group is preparing for its inaugural Millennium Campus Conference to be held next weekend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The event has booked several notable speakers, including former senator John Edwards; R&B artist John Legend; and Ira Magaziner, who was a senior policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.

"Networking is the key," Vaghar said. "We want to bring these groups together to share ideas, resources, and build up a national student voice and movement."

"A unified effort is stronger than a fragmented one," said Werfel, 19. "The benefit of the MCN is that it brings together a number of committed and connected individuals."

Through internships at big-name, nonprofit agencies, Werfel and Vaghar formed contacts with notable activists. Vaghar spent last summer with the One Campaign, an organization cofounded by U2 frontman Bono. Werfel interned at the Earth Institute at Columbia Uni versity, under the direction of economist Jeffrey Sachs.

The two students have designed the network to support the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals, eight objectives with a target date of 2015. The goals are designed to direct activists' efforts and provide solutions to problems such as global poverty, AIDS, and the lack of primary education in underdeveloped countries.

Tufts University freshman Julie Gray said that each of the Millennium Campus Network's member groups has its own focus and its own approach to generating public awareness. Her group at Tufts is part of an international campaign that uses media and government lobbying to enact change, she said.

At the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Student Musicians Against AIDS holds benefit concerts to get its message across. The Global Poverty Initiative at MIT uses overseas contacts to bring together an international perspective on issues of poverty. Boston University, Harvard, and Northeastern also have member organizations that operate under the Millennium network banner.

Brandeis senior Jacob Korman leads the group's university outreach efforts and connects with prospective member groups. And Brandeis junior Dave Drayton is working with Boston-area law firms to have the network certified as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.

Member groups function independently, but the network allows them to collaborate on such efforts as the MIT conference. "We leave the member organizations to do whatever they would have done otherwise," Werfel said.

The three-day event, which is to begin April 18, was the brainchild of MIT's Global Poverty Initiative. Director Anne Liu, a 21-year-old senior, founded the initiative last April, and originally had planned a smaller conference. Vaghar contacted Liu last summer and invited her to join the network, and through the collaboration, the event grew.

Several other notable activist groups have committed to the project. Legend and Sachs will be participating as part of the Show Me Campaign, an international charity that is working to lift up African villages from poverty.

"What these students are doing is just wonderful," Sachs said. "They exemplify the new activism on campuses and with youth across the country. Young people in America are saying, 'We're going to take on these big challenges,' and they're going out there to provide leadership."

More than 1,400 attendees have been confirmed for the conference, which will have five focuses - economics, health, public policy, technology, and education - with a main speaker on each subject. There also will be workshops and luncheon gatherings to allow closer interaction among the participants.

"The workshops are intended to teach students how to put their intentions into action," Gray said. "Our goal is that students leave with a plan on how they're going to change the world."

"It's been inspiring to be able to see students as movers and shakers," said Vaghar, who plans to work full time on the Millennium Campus Network after graduation. "I'm excited to meet more students who are united in this effort."

Manny Veiga can be contacted at mveiga@globe.com.

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