Sam Vaghar ’08 turns social justice into social action
Alumnus works to educate college students on how to solve complex global injustices
A high school trip to Cuba and the experience of reading “The End of Poverty” by economist Jeffrey Sachs served as an inspiration for Sam Vaghar ’08 to do his part to end poverty on a global level.
So the Newton, Massachusetts native mobilized other college students in the Boston area about a year before his graduation to create the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), an organization designed to educate undergraduates around the country at a strategic level to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.
Now in its eighth year, MCN, which is headquartered inside the Prudential Center in downtown Boston, partners with universities across the country in the form of a credit-bearing, spring semester fellowship program. The program, which can be completed either in-person or online, accepts undergraduates that are working in campus-based student organizations working to advance the UN’s sustainable development goals.
Through experiential learning, the fellows are taught to improve both their organization’s operations and funding as well as their own strengths in leadership, partnerships, advocacy and campus engagement. Fellows also receive individual coaching sessions that develop their professional skills, networking and maximizing community-building opportunities.
Vaghar has taken his vision for using experiential learning to unite college-age activists around the world, and has even presented MCN’s platform to the United Nations and President Barack Obama.
“I certainly invite more Brandeis students to become Millennium Fellows,” said Vaghar, who returned to campus on October 26. “Obviously I am very grateful to Brandeis, which is one of the founding campuses of MCN. We now have 11 institutions around the country that are contributing members, and we’re scaling to have 200 by 2020.
“Brandeis is one of the original four universities to say yes first to the Millennium Fellowship,” Vaghar added. “If not for Brandeis, this movement wouldn’t be where it is today.”
BrandeisNOW caught up with Vaghar to discuss his life’s work:
BNOW: You’ve attempted to solve some very complex problems that affect us on a global stage and yet you’ve exclusively targeted college students to help you on this mission. Can you talk about why you’ve chosen this particular group of people?
SV: Universities are a perfect training ground. They’re untapped potential for the social sector. From my own experience, Brandeis was where I found myself. I found my voice. And I don’t think this is a unique story. For a lot of undergrads, college is a period of exploration. One of the special facets about being a student is the community engagement. Ideas travel quickly and you have an opportunity to rally people. But, energy from students is not always channeled the right way. Students do a lot of learning in the classroom. They understand all about what’s going wrong in the world, but far too few students around the world get the opportunity to apply what they are learning in communities in structured ways.
BNOW: How do you measure the results of MCN?
SV: We have key performance indicators. We look at the operations, partnerships, resources and leadership transitions of student organizations. We examine the role they have in campus engagement and advocacy. We are able to track, in a meaningful way, the effectiveness and growth of student organizations in our portfolio.
What’s exciting for us is that we’re in year three with our student organizations, which are launched in New York, Miami and Boston. They went from start-up level to creating functional organizations. That means stronger operations, clear communication and engagement with the communities they are working with.
BNOW: Would you say you’ve evolved the concept of social justice?
SV: Evolved it? No, not really. Our broad thematic focus is social impact. It’s very much interrelated with social justice. Maybe it’s interchangeable. But, to be honest, one thing I’ve learned is that as intentional we are about language, it’s also important to try to not to get caught up in it either.
While people sit and debate nomenclature, the world is moving. We all know what needs to change at a common sense level. I know there are opportunities for this generation to do more. We know the avenues we have to make an impact. So social impact or social justice is about ensuring everybody has basic needs met and that there is a support network for everyone who needs it.