29/05/2015 08:58 BST | Updated 27/05/2016 06:59 BST

Facing Up to Global Challenges


*Madeline Weeks [2014] is an MPhil student in Geographical Research and Executive of the Global Scholars Action Network (GSAN). She studies the wellbeing of coffee farmers in Mexico and has a deep passion for the pursuit of happiness. Follow her on Twitter: @madelinecacao or her blog: The other sponsors were Chevening, the Churchill Scholarship, Clarendon Fund, Commonwealth Scholarship, Fulbright Commission, Marshall Scholarship, Weidenfeld Scholarships & Leadership Programme, along with the SAID Business School of Oxford.

Great leaders know how to listen. They are humble enough to learn from failures of their own and champion the lighthouse success of others. They act because their moral compass knows only that direction. And they build impact by igniting action.

"Building impact: listen, learn, act" was the theme of this year's eighth annual Global Scholars Symposium (GSS) held at the University of Cambridge with generous sponsorship from the McCall McBain Foundation, Gates Cambridge, The Rhodes Trust and seven other scholarships. Over the course of this four-day conference, postgraduate students from across the United Kingdom had the opportunity to meet with leaders like social activist and reformer Medha Patkar; Dr Selim Jahan, Director of the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report Office; Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-free World; comedian Francesca Martinez; Amy Goodman, journalist and host of Democracy Now!; and Dr Sanduk Ruit, co-founder of the Himalayan Cataract Project.

The innovative format enabled students to engage with these speakers in fireside chats and small group sessions, bridging differences across generations and disciplines. Topics included the role of independent media, racism, ethical living, the struggle for gender equality, delivering healthcare to marginalised communities, climate change and the role of aid in development.

In face of these global challenges there was a spirit of optimism. The solutions do not have to cost the earth or be at the sacrifice of humanity. On the other side of war is peace; gender inequality can be overcome through women's empowerment; and people's inherent love for nature can galvanise politicians to doing something real about climate change. Wealth and deprivation may be two sides of the same coin, and perhaps what matters most is not the mathematics of the equation but giving it practical application.

It is tempting - and undoubtedly worthwhile - to try to measure progress and impact. At the panel on alternative measures of progress, we had the opportunity to hear from people like Nic Marks, founder of the Happy Planet Index, and enter into heated discussion about economic efficiency, progress and the tension between a good life today and a good life in the future. We can try to formulate this into measures like the Gini coefficient, the Human Development Index and build them into initiatives like the Millennium Development Goals.

Yet that is a means and not the end to itself. Our priority should be on innovating solutions to cherish the values like community, kindness, forgiveness, love and creativity that, as former US president John F. Kennedy famously said when criticising the Gross National Product, fill the gap of what is really at the core of human wellbeing. It's a beautiful and messy world out there and the solutions are not neat, let alone concrete.

But that should not stop us.

As we set sail - on a journey in which we must learn not to drown when we fail - three simple words can help each of us navigate the waters to impact: listen, learn and act.