I recently returned from a challenging and enlightening summer exploring sustainable development and culture in Singapore and Malaysia. I was one of 22 high school students from across the country selected to participate in the American Youth Leadership Program (AYLP), which is fully funded by the U.S. Department of State and organized by Cultural Vistas.
FROM SAN ANTONIO TO SINGAPORE TO KUALA LUMPUR
As a cultural explorer of Southeast Asia, I defined my individual quest for environmental sustainability while being globally engaged. I felt it was important to travel and learn about Singapore and Malaysia given the recent pivot to Asia in American foreign policy. It's evident that the U.S. has shown strategic interest in the region because these countries are beginning to play a prominent role in the 21st-century economy.
Even with rapid urbanization in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, their vast green spaces exhibit the pinnacle of environmental consciousness. Singapore exudes a sense of futurism with its NEWater, Senoko Waste-to-Energy Plant, and solar-powered trees at Gardens by the Bay. On the other hand, from the top of the Petronas Towers, one can witness the green landscape that helps Malaysia reap the benefits of its blossoming natural resources.
The progress Singapore and Malaysia have made in sustainable economics is sadly overlooked, as is the culture. Before traveling to these two places, my impressions of the region were vague and marked solely by stereotypes. In fact, students in the U.S. learn very few facts about Singapore and Malaysia. We are unaware of their rich histories and cultures because they don't affect us directly. Little did I know that, despite the presumed discrimination in Malaysia, the country is home to many people of a mixed ancestry, both local and foreign, called Peranakans.
The cultural mosaic of Southeast Asia is similar to that of America in its diverse components and vivid expressions. Meeting people from all walks of life led me to dismantle the assumptions of strict law codes and discover the region’s economic dynamism.
I personally had the opportunity to meet with students my age from both Singapore and Melaka. Here, I was able to represent America’s youth and share bits of my culture and heritage with the students. We used English as a medium to communicate, but our native tongues to express our identities. The face of America is not homogeneous, and I am glad we were able to transcend that notion, as well. They ended up teaching me common phrases in Chinese, Malay and Tamil while I did the same in Spanish. These are just some of the examples of the cultural openness and hospitality I experienced.
Overall, there was an amazing reception from our tour guides and host families. I was introduced to unfamiliar dishes, spices and fruits while discovering what mattered to the people of Singapore and Malaysia. Immersing myself in a culture distant from my own home taught me about tolerance, discipline, innovation, religious devotion and loyalty. Experiencing something different once in a while can bring life-changing moments. That’s why I am so thankful the State Department has set precedence for cultural exchange programs like this one.
At the end of my environmental journey, I pitched a post-program idea alongside fellow AYLP participant Telyse Masaoay, of Springfield, Missouri, and won the top grant from Cultural Vistas to implement the startup.
From Concept to Launch
Greenhouse emissions, solar variation and air pollution have long been associated with climate change. While environmental protection has come to mean limiting resource extraction and exhibiting eco-friendly practices, the protection required is not solely ecological. Sustainability deals with cultural identity, economic productivity and overall political structure.
Now is the ideal time to shift rhetoric and come to the socio-political realization that clean technology and energy efficiency must be prioritized to tackle and prevent ecological and economic challenges. The complete exhaustion of natural resources poses major consequences. These include resource deprivation, violent conflicts or, in some cases, famine and starvation. There is also a direct correlation between biodiversity and linguistic diversity, because the stability of the environment plays a pivotal role in some cultural rituals and practices. Furthermore, unless environmental protection is espoused, developing countries will continue to suffer from a decline in public wellness, mainly by the depletion of clean oxygen.
Minimizing our reliance on fossil fuels and reversing the damage to natural ecosystems and biodiversity will require a massive shift of technology and higher capital investment. However, investing in research efforts will make this pathway more cost-effective. Such is the case in Southeast Asia. The Economy and Environment Program for Southeast Asia (EEPSEA) was founded in an effort “to evaluate the economic and environmental impacts of projects, programs and policies through the local capacity that it helps develop.” The organization is local, but its aim poses global implications.
Supporting Science, Technology, Engineering and Math research, training in the field and communicating discoveries for policy impact are ideal for sustainable development. This model provides a medium to analyze environmental concerns and design financially viable solutions to reinvigorate people, businesses and the world about taking action against climate change.
It is up to our generation to forge sustainable development in our countries and beyond. Recent improvements and technological developments have facilitated our lives, but it’s important to prioritize environmental matters if we want those benefits to be long-term. Research is a great gateway into reinventing the future of sustainable development and innovating the way we implement it.
Bringing young minds into the field provides a new perspective and also introduces them to the workforce. Given that access to educational opportunities remains a pressing issue for minorities and other at-risk students, it's critical that we invest in their professional development to unlock their talent and potential. I am founding the nonprofit ENVIRONATE to provide underprivileged high school sophomores and juniors with eco-focused research apprenticeships in the areas of business, law, policy and STEM. The organization will benefit students who are on the lower end of the income bracket, whose families make less than $60,000 a year.
ENVIRONATE is a verb I created that means to educate on environmental matters. What makes our program unique is that we provide a three-month virtual tour and seminar training prior to the seven-week internship. This way, students can get the most out of their work experience and potentially be able to create a study of their own. I can personally attest to the significant impact research has had in my life. From meeting President Obama at the White House Science Fair to placing third in the world at Intel ISEF, it's pure and simple research that has helped me get there. These experiences have shaped my career goals and equipped me with invaluable networks.
Our organization plans to open applications to prospective students in mid-November with a goal to announce the first ENVIRONATE class of 10 graduates – five from San Antonio and five from Washington, D.C.– at the beginning of 2015. With success, we hope to double the program in its second year and eventually expand to other cities and perhaps even internationally.
ENVIRONATE’s Mission Statement:
ENVIRONATE seeks to educate underprivileged youth on sustainable development practices by providing research apprenticeships with eco-focused professionals. We believe that the hidden talent of at-risk students in the areas of business, law, policy and STEM will unlock global change by empowering local communities.
The AYLP participants chronicled their experience on social media, a summary of which can be found here.
*Featured/top image: Jocelyn Hernandez at the Marina Barrage Green Roof in Singapore. Photo by Jonathan Gutmann.