Future changemakers gather at the University Scholars Leadership Symposium
In early August, the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and the Program in the Environment (PitE) sent us, Katelyn Heflin and Josephine McCarthy, to the 11th annual University Scholars Leadership Symposium (USLS) hosted by Humanitarian Affairs Asia at the United Nations Conference Center in Bangkok, Thailand. USLS brings together changemakers from various disciplines across the globe whose studies address the interconnected global challenges of our time, including climate change, migration, human trafficking, disaster relief, and water access among other humanitarian demands. Below we share a little bit about our experiences.
Katelyn: I am a second-year SEAS master’s student specializing in Environmental Policy and Planning. USLS was such an inspiring experience, and I met passionate young leaders from all over the world. A couple of highlights included hearing from a PhD student in multilingual policy from Italy named Silvia whose work involves the preservation of Indigenous languages in Cameroon and Australia. There was also Simon, a Syrian refugee who is now an Australian citizen. Simon is a master’s student studying renewable energy engineering and is quite enthusiastic about harnessing untapped forms of renewable energy. Another highlight of USLS for me was our volunteer day where all 400-plus delegates spent a day engaging with the Bangkok community and its outskirts. I participated in cleaning part of the Bangkok canal system, collecting mostly micro plastics. We kayaked through water filled with dead catfish that had ingested plastic. As an Environmental Policy student, I’m interested in waste management policy, specifically to address the plastics production/pollution crisis. The canal-cleaning volunteer day was a tangible reminder of the need the take action.
Josephine: I am a fourth-year undergraduate student studying in PitE and international studies. At USLS, we heard from a variety of talented and motivational speakers who have sparked change all over the world. I was most inspired by Breauna Dorelus, founder and chief cause consultant at Connecting the Cause, USA. In her speech, Breauna spoke about the negative side of volunteerism. She explained that while volunteerism is not innately destructive, it can have disastrous effects if conducted for selfish reasons. If volunteers enter a community hoping to “save” or view that community as a project, volunteerism is being used as a tool for “supremacy, pity and self-interest.” This sentiment stuck with me, and Breauna’s speech as a whole made me reevaluate how I approach community advocacy and outreach within the environmental field. These sentiments, the words of other speakers, and the invaluable friends and memories I made at USLS will forever stay with me and act as an important guide in all my future endeavors.
The University Scholars Leadership Symposium is an opportunity to meet like-minded students who care to build a brighter future. The networks built at USLS will, with time, undoubtedly lead us to the next generation of global leaders. We are honored to have been selected as the first SEAS/PitE duo to attend the symposium and know it will continue to enrich future students along their leadership journey in humanitarian affairs.
Watch the USLS post-event recap video below.