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Jan. 16, 2009

Columbia College student Cyrus Moussavi will be part of global televised celebrations of President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration when MTV airs its "Be The Change Inaugural Ball" on Tuesday, Jan. 20 at 10 p.m. EST. The ball will also highlight youth service activities in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., as part of its support of Obama's call to all Americans to commit to public service.

Cyrus Moussavi with children from Omindo Primary School in Lihanda, Kenya
Cyrus Moussavi with children from Omindo Primary School in Lihanda, Kenya

Moussavi caught the attention of MTV producers because of his work in communities in rural Kenya, where he most recently helped build a computer lab in a local school. An engineering and philosophy double major from Cedar Falls, Iowa, he has for the past year been working with the Millennium Villages, which fights poverty in Africa at the local level by improving education, health, gender equality and environmental sustainability. Millennium Villages is led, in part, by the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

MTV's ball is co-hosted with ServiceNation, an organization that supports expanding national service programs such as the Peace Corps and Americorps. Last September, Columbia hosted then-Senator Obama and Senator John McCain at the ServiceNation Presidential Candidate's Forum for a nationally broadcast discussion of youth service and civic engagement. The MTV special featuring Moussavi will include live remarks from the newly sworn-in President Obama, himself a 1983 Columbia graduate.

"Millennium Villages is a project—much like Obama's campaign—that depends a lot on individual donations," Moussavi said. "Small donations from young people" and volunteering for what he called "small-scale work," can lead to large-scale change. "This is a thing young people can be involved with, even if it's just donating bed nets to prevent malaria."

Moussavi first learned about the Millennium Villages project when he sat in on a talk about global poverty by Jeffrey Sachs, Columbia professor and director of the University's Earth Institute. "What seemed an insurmountable obstacle—devastating poverty in Africa—was suddenly broken down into a series of smaller challenges that even a random college kid could help with," said Moussavi of Prof. Sachs' talk.

Moussavi sent an e-mail to Sachs the next day and immediately was put to work stuffing envelopes at the Millennium Villages office. Eventually Moussavi developed an idea for an internship: the compilation of oral histories about villagers' lives in a Millennium Village, a project he undertook this past summer during a two month stay in Sauri, Kenya. With his translator, Joseph Okanga, he videotaped interviews with villagers from every walk of life—teachers, doctors, widows, as well as people living with AIDS and malaria patients—to get a better understanding of their lives "in the words of the people there," he said.

On his most recent trip this January, Moussavi helped build a computer lab at Omindo Primary School in the Millennium Village of Lihanda. The new lab will give more than 500 young Kenyans important tools to expand their education, creating "a generation of kids who are computer literate," Moussavi said. "People who previously only had access to four or five books now have access to Wikipedia."

Lihanda is located roughly 12 miles from the village of Nyangoma-Kogelo, where Obama's father grew up and where his grandmother still lives.

"I love being here," Moussavi said. "I've managed to meet so many people I've kept in touch with, partly because they now have Internet access."

Since he has been in Kenya, Moussavi has been overwhelmed with questions from enthusiastic young Kenyans about Barack Obama and the presidency, such as: "How old do you have to be to be President of the United States?"

Moussavi leaves Africa just before Inauguration Day to return to Columbia to start his last semester, and will miss the celebrations that will surely take place throughout Kenya. "They're going to have the craziest party in the world here," he said.

Such volunteer and service-learning experiences are widespread at Columbia, where thousands of undergraduate and graduate students, as well as faculty and staff, participate in a wide array of academic research, civic partnership and social entrepreneurship efforts—from local neighborhoods in New York City to developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

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