From Kuching to the US and back
By Patricia B Y Wong
“How was your trip to the US?”
“Fun, but intensive.”
It is easy to get the “fun” part of the reply, but “intensive”? People are usually doubtful about it. It certainly doesn’t look too intensive from the photos posted on social media. Imagine covering Hawaii, Colorado, Washington DC, all in a mere five weeks. It had been an eye-opening journey from one end of the United States to the other.
I was lucky to be chosen along with 19 others from across five countries in Southeast Asia to be part of the 2015 Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) Academic Fellowship, a programme funded by the US Department of State.
From May to June, we were hosted by the East-West Center in Hawaii and were in different states in the US to study about global environmental issues through problem-based learning, site visits, and by talking to American people – from the residents to the president himself.
One of the highlights of the programme was our meeting with President Obama in Washington DC along with other YSEALI professional fellows. His emphasis on sustainable development as our countries progress struck a chord among us as it concerned not just our individual countries but was a global concern that we all should address.
It is especially true that youths need to be engaged in these discussions of global issues in order to foster better understanding and to encourage initiatives and cooperation.
The dynamic content and pace of the programme had allowed us to be exposed to different sides of the US. Our learning journey included a whole range of hands-on activities such as conducting workshops alongside partner organisations and individuals, which brought us to places like Pearl Harbour, Eco-Cycle Centre, and the Longworth House Office Building.
It was an honour to be able to work alongside these partners who are experts in their own fields. To be able to pick their brains on certain matters was nothing short of amazing. Our short weekend with host families also allowed us a sneak peek into the American lifestyle while community service activities allowed us to better understand and integrate with the community.
It was nice to have the opportunity to share and exchange cultures while learning from each other as these seemingly mundane encounters provided us with insight on the workings and values shared in the American community.
Through all these different activities, we saw how our past, our daily actions and choices are actually closely linked to our environment. These different learning methods employed throughout the programme were refreshing and allowed us to explore various types of problems and solutions related to the environment. The tools and skills that we acquired had inspired many of us to share and try to incorporate these learning methods back home.
Besides our studies on environmental issues, the programme included leadership training activities and one of the first of such activities was the rope course.
Standing on a single strand of wire at 50 feet above the ground was enough to make the bravest of us wobbly in the knees – not to mention those who were afraid of heights!
Similar to the beginning of our journey in the US, everything was strange and unfamiliar, and we were all unsure of each other, the place, and the programme. Through teamwork, courage, and good guidance, we were able to understand each other better and conquer our fears.
The best part is to have a group of wonderful people- peers, mentors, and partners- around to support each other along our journey in the US. The friendships formed were a good start to many future collaborations.
The programme had definitely been a good platform for growth by providing us with new perspectives and different possibilities.
One of the topics that we discussed during the programme was our legacies. It was inspiring how legacies could deliver such long lasting impact seeing how the actions of people before us had affected us in many different ways.
Although we have since graduated from the programme, our learning journey never really stops. Joining the YSEALI network has allowed me to connect with alumni from different cohorts and learn about the projects they are running to achieve their legacy. Though each of us wants to achieve different things, ultimately, we all share the same vision of change for the better.
Hence, I decided to join an alumni project to bring the ASEAN Reusable Bag Campaign to Kuching! We will be running activity-based workshops in schools, and in time, we hope that Kuching City will start to implement a plastic bag free day in its shopping malls. Through this campaign, I hope that the local community will gain a better understanding regarding environmental issues affecting us and see how seemingly small daily choices we make – such as choosing reusable bag over plastic bag- can affect our environment.
It will be you who will decide whether to form this legacy in Kuching. What is the legacy that you wish to leave behind?