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Empowering Young Leaders in Global Health: A conversation with Dr. Coll Seck, former Minister of Health of Senegal

Updated: Jul 8


Ariel Zhao is a Class of 2021 Millennium Fellowship alum currently serving as a student liaison at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In May 2024, Ariel helped organize an event titled "Youth Empowerment and Shaping the Future of Public Health and Sustainable Development", a critical conversation on global health challenges, youth advocacy, and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The session brought together a panel of experts, including MCN Executive Director Sam Vaghar; and Dr. Awa Coll Seck, former minster of health in Senegal. Ariel wrote this article reflecting on the event and lessons learnt.


"I recently spearheaded a virtual event bringing together young leaders, global health experts, and advocates to discuss the critical role of youth in tackling global health challenges. This event, held on May 6th, focused on how young people can effectively contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The event aimed to ignite dialogue, inspire action, and build connections among a global audience.

The event featured a panel discussion facilitated by Ariel Zhao and moderated by MCN Executive Director Sam Vaghar, with Dr. Awa Marie Coll Seck, former Minister of Health of Senegal, as the esteemed panelist. Dr. Coll Seck, renowned for her work in combating infectious diseases and strengthening health systems in Senegal, brought a wealth of experience to the conversation. Mr. Vaghar, a champion of youth leadership and the driving force behind the MCN's global network of empowered young leaders, offered a unique perspective on the power of collaboration and mentorship.

The Birth of a Movement: Sam's Reflection on The Millennium Campus Network's journey

It all began in a university dorm room. Inspired by the work of Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health, and Jeffrey Sachs' "The End of Poverty," a group of students, led by Sam Vaghar, recognized the immense challenges facing the world, but also the potential for young people to make a difference. This spark ignited the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), a now-thriving network of 268 universities across 38 countries, empowering young leaders to tackle the Sustainable Development Goals in their communities.

MCN now provides a platform for young people to connect with each other, share ideas, and develop their leadership skills. The network offers a range of programs and resources to support young leaders, including mentorship opportunities, workshops, and funding for their projects.

Fresh Perspectives, Authentic Leadership, and Sustainable Solutions: Reflecting on the panel

The panel discussion delved into three key themes:

  • Young Voices, Fresh Perspectives: The Need for Inclusion: Dr. Coll Seck emphasized that young people are not just beneficiaries of global health initiatives, but crucial contributors. She highlighted the effectiveness of youth-led programs and the importance of a "bottom-up" approach to finding solutions.

"Young people bring a fresh perspective, a connection to the realities on the ground," Dr. Coll Seck said, stressing the critical need to include young people in decision-making processes, ensuring their voices are heard and respected in the global health landscape.

She shared the success story of her initiative, the Forum on Health Innovations in Africa, which brings together young leaders to network, learn, and collaborate on initiatives. This forum provides a platform for young people to connect, build relationships, and learn from each other and from seasoned experts in the field.

  • Building Trust Through Authentic Leadership: Mentorship and Guidance: While acknowledging the inspirational power of established leaders, Sam Vaghar, Executive Director of MCN, emphasized the need for authentic leadership and mentorship within young people's immediate surroundings.

He highlighted the challenges young leaders face when seeking mentorship from established professionals, noting that many young people feel ignored or disregarded in their attempts to connect with experienced leaders.

Dr. Coll Seck echoed this sentiment, stressing that genuine leaders should be accessible, actively listen to young people, and understand the challenges they are facing. She highlighted the importance of actively reaching out to young people, engaging them in meaningful ways, and recognizing their value as contributors to the larger effort.

  • Empowering Sustainability: Community-Centered Solutions: The discussion transitioned to the critical role of young people in driving sustainable practices within their communities. Dr. Coll Seck highlighted innovative approaches to addressing poverty, climate change, and other urgent issues.

She emphasized the importance of understanding and addressing community needs as a core criterion for success, ensuring that innovations are truly valuable and relevant to the community.

Dr. Coll Seck shared a compelling example of a young entrepreneur who addressed a real need in his community: He recognized that local farmers were struggling to preserve milk, resulting in significant waste and financial loss. He therefore leveraged his agricultural knowledge to create a system for collecting, sterilizing, and preserving milk, ultimately establishing a successful business that benefited both the farmers and the community.

From second left: Dr. Lia Tadesse, Dr. Awa Coll Seck, Mme. Rosine Sori-Coulibaly, Ariel Zhao

Mentorship, Opportunities, and Building a Global Network

The discussion explored how to connect young leaders with opportunities and support their growth. Ariel Ackermann asked Dr. Coll Seck for advice on how to help students who are passionate about public health find their start and confirm their career path. Dr. Coll Seck emphasized the importance of starting somewhere and being resilient, acknowledging that finding the right path can be a journey of exploration and experimentation. Dr. Coll Seck suggested that volunteering can be a valuable way for young people to gain experience, build connections, and open doors to new opportunities.

Sam Vaghar on the other hand advocated for a two-pronged approach: building local leadership through peer mentorship and increasing awareness of global opportunities through platforms like the Millennium Fellowship. He emphasized the long-term return on investment in young people, highlighting the potential to shape the next half-century of impact by empowering them today.

A Call to Action: Supporting Youth-Led Change

This panel discussion provided valuable insights for young leaders seeking to make a positive impact on global health. It highlighted the importance of community-centered approaches, strong collaborations, and effective communication.

The message is clear: young people have a vital role to play in tackling global health challenges, but only by working together and building trust with those who are experienced in the field.

The event concluded with a call to action, urging participants to engage in mentorship, support youth-led initiatives, and advocate for policies that promote inclusivity and empower young people to drive."


Connect with Ariel on LinkedIN. Alumni, share your stories with us here:


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