Valerie Cazeau loves to travel, but she had never been to Southeast Asia. That changed this summer, as the Atholton High School senior traveled to Singapore and Malaysia with a U.S. State Department-sponsored program to learn about sustainable development practices.
"I like learning about how countries, while they're developing, thought up ways to — as they develop — become more sustainable," said Cazeau, 17, a senior at the Columbia school. "They're making sure that as they use their resources, those resources are being preserved for future generations."
Cazeau was one of the 18 students from across the country to take a three-week trip to Southeast Asia with the American Youth Leadership Program, an initiative funded by the state department and organized by the nonprofit Cultural Vistas.
"The aim of the program is to foster a cultural understanding through the lens of environmental development," said AYLP Program Manager Dan Strobel. "We're looking at sustainable development practices and delving into cultures, learning how they react to global issues."
About 120 students ages 15-17 across the country applied for a spot on this summer's trip. Strobel said students are selected based mostly on "a willingness to participate and open-mindedness" to travel to areas of the world the state department has deemed "vital for our foreign affairs in the future, and areas where interest here domestically may be lagging," like Japan for the past two years.
The trip, which this year went from July 1 to 25, features hands-on experiences, Strobel said. So while students are experiencing local culture by visiting museums and trying native cuisine, they're also undertaking two or three different field trips or projects in a day, meeting with local scientists and environmental advocates. That can mean taking tours of Singapore's green pathways, which allow wildlife to traverse an area without crossing city streets, or visiting an incinerator in Singapore and learning about how trash management practices can produce cleaner energy.
"I was a little confused when we went to the incinerator at first," Cazeau said. "But I understood the importance when we got there. In Singapore, they're using trash and converting it to energy. Then we went to a landfill, but it wasn't a conventional landfill. It was an island. They took the ash from the incinerator and were making it into an island for wildlife preservation. It was really, really cool. You don't think of islands or wildlife when you think of landfills here. You just think of trash."
Sustainable practices differ between Singapore and Malaysia, Cazeau said.
For example, in Singapore, recycling is mandatory and even the water is treated and then recycled. In Malaysia, the pervasiveness of rubber plantations has decimated large areas of forest, and now the nation is trying to figure out how to heal some of the damage development has created, Cazeau said.
"It's easy to think, we'll get to (sustainable environmental practices) when we need to, but we're focusing on developing our country right now," she said. "But you have to think of the two things as one. You have to develop and be sustainable at the same time, otherwise you'll run out of resources and there's nothing you can do to get them back."
The final part of the program didn't end when the students returned from their trip, Strobel said. Now, they all must take what they have experienced during their trip and do something in their own school or community to highlight the cultures or sustainability practices they learned about.
For Cazeau, that means creating a lesson plan on Singapore and Malaysian cuisine for her culinary course at Atholton, and possibly doing something with the school's environmental club to teach others about environmental sustainability.
"It's so important that we learn from each other," Cazeau said. "Sustainability practices that work in Singapore might not work in Malaysia, and vice versa. You have to devise a system that works for your country and your area, and the more we communicate, the more we learn."