Networking for a cause
Sam Vaghar ’08 started a non-profit organization to fight poverty
Published: Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Updated: Monday, October 24, 2011 21:10
Sam Vaghar '08 lost every election he ran in during high school. Like many students, Vaghar says that, in those four years, he "just didn't fit in." So when he got to Brandeis, he decided to do the exact opposite of what he did in high school. In his first year at Brandeis, he made the extra effort to meet everyone in his class by going door to door while running for positions in student government and the Student Union. It was then that Vaghar realized he had the skills to be a leader.
Just a few years later, Vaghar works as the co-founder and executive director of the Millennium Campus Network, "a non-profit network of university student organizations working to end poverty," according to its website.
Vaghar's realization that he wanted to be involved in eliminating poverty came during his freshman year after buying an issue of Time Magazine at the Walgreens on the corner of South Street and Main Street.
In the issue, Vaghar read passages from economist Jeffrey Sachs' book, The End of Poverty, which noted that there are 1.4 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Vaghar says he was struck by this statistic, which he describes as "staggering [and] overwhelming to think about."
After reading the article and conducting further informal research, Vaghar was inspired by the simple solutions that could solve so many of the world's poverty issues, such as bed nets for less than $10 to prevent malaria, which he says is "less than 10 dollars to save a life."
Vaghar says it was just a matter of "having the guts to pick up the phone and call ... world-famous economist Jeff Sachs."
He was interested in Sachs' theory and wanted to talk more in person. Two days later, he was in a New York meeting with Sachs' staff to speak about what students specifically could do to help eliminate poverty.
A major problem Vaghar found in the effort to fight global poverty was that, while so many students care about the issue, they are not working together. As a result, they lack many members and funding because individual groups are small.
From this idea, the Millennium Campus Network began. So far, it has allocated $40,000 in grants through fundraising efforts to student leaders. The organization is able to provide mentors, technical support and collaboration with students who have the same passion and commitment to the cause to bind them together by including them in the same network.
Students at Brandeis helped launch Millennium Campus Network during its beginning years, as members raised thousands of dollars through existing clubs and organizations such as the International Club, the Student Union and Greek life.
Positive Foundations, an on-campus organization Vaghar started during his time at Brandeis to fight poverty, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for various non-profit organizations.
The fact that Positive Foundations is still active at Brandeis and is now a member in the MCN means a lot to Vaghar "because it means that the Brandeis journey continues to be a part of what [they're] creating," he said.
Senior year, Vaghar and the students he was initially working with decided to take the MCN beyond Brandeis and to reach out to other campuses. Through Facebook, emails and phone calls to student groups at schools such as Boston University, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University and Tufts University, Vaghar convinced other campuses to get involved.
The MCN's first conference took place with 1,000 students from around the world in April of Vaghar's senior year and Sachs; Dr. Paul Farmer, a founding director of Partners in Health; and singer John Legend were all present. Devoted to the cause, Vaghar decided to continue his work for the organization full-time after he graduated.
Vaghar strongly believes that what students learn in the classroom has to be applied in the real world.
"You can spend your whole life in class learning, but at a certain point you need to learn by doing," he said.
He believes that college students are a great resource because "they have more free time, ... more energy and passion and ... a sense that anything is possible, and I think that mentality means that they can do the impossible," he said.
Along with 10 other other young leaders, Vaghar was given the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama this past June.
The group shared their efforts with the president and talked about the issues most prevalent in young lives today. Vaghar credits his preparation for the meeting to his time serving as a student representative on the Board of Trustees at Brandeis where he "learned how to be professional at a young age."
And while one might expect Vaghar's proudest moment with the organization to be meeting President Obama, he says it actually has been learning how to fundraise most efficiently, which used to be an element outside of his comfort zone.
Vaghar has been back to the University multiple times since graduating, has given talks on campus and attended events such as the Social Justice Forum for the Hiatt Career Center.
He describes his overall Brandeis experience as "life-changing" and says that he "wouldn't be doing the work [he's] doing today if [he] didn't attend Brandeis."
He stresses that going to Brandeis prepared him for what he is involved in now "in ways nothing else has."
His hope is that the MCN will expand to cities other than the already-involved Boston, Chicago, New York and Washington D.C., as well as continue the annual conference where over 1,000 young leaders and widely known figures, such as Senator John Kerry, musical artist K'naan and actress Eliza Dushku are brought together to discuss the global problem of poverty, fundraising strategies and solutions.
"This whole movement, my whole life right now, is revolved around college organizing. So Brandeis is at the heart of that because that's where it started for me, ... where the MCN began," he said.