These Students Are Using Their Spring Breaks To Learn How To Save The World

Instead of partying in Cancun, they're using their time to get hands-on experience in environmental issues and sustainability.

November 1, 2017
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Imagine if a young engineering student, instead of spending spring break partying in Cancun, or with nose buried in a book, was actually out in the field in Iceland learning how the country harnesses geothermal energy? 

That's exactly the type of experience The GREEN Program is all about. Founded in 2009 by students, The GREEN Program (TGP), described as "short-term, experiential education for our world’s most pressing issues in sustainable development," is unique among university study abroad programs. They have a program on Renewable Energy and Sustainability in Iceland, on Sustainable Community Food and Energy Systems in Hawaii, on Water Resource Management in Peru, and on Disaster Mitigation and Nuclear to Renewable Transitions in Japan.

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It's also the adventure trip of a lifetime: the students climb glaciers, hike Machu Picchu, and swim in geothermal springs. They experience the environment firsthand, earning course credit from local universities, all the while traveling with local guides, meeting government and energy officials, and eating organic food.

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TGP is not pegged to only one university, so students everywhere can do it, plus their focus is to enable students to have a transformational experience abroad at a fraction of the time and cost of traditional study abroad programs. It's a STEM program focused on experiential education for students who are interested in things like renewable energy and sustainable development, and geared towards those students taking what they learn back into their careers. It's a shorter program, so even students with demanding schedules who can't participate in normal study abroad programs can participate in this one—plus, they have a scholarship program for students who can't afford it.

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Melissa Lee, Green Program
Melissa Lee, Founder and CEO of The Green Program Photograph courtesy of The Green Program

 

The intrepid Melissa Lee, 28, CEO of The GREEN Program, founded the organization when she was only 19 years old and a college student at Rutgers. Lee, whose family is from Malaysia, says "My proudest accomplishment is defying the odds of being a minority and woman entrepreneur. To know that my team is working to make an impact is special and we are just getting started." 

Lee says:

"I knew at a young age that the best way to learn about yourself, your passions, and your purpose is to be open to new experiences, and experience the power of international travel. For me, the lightbulb moment wasn't seeing the renewable energy facilities, but the realization that students who want to make a difference need to see and experience these facilities and communities first hand." 

TGP is unique in that it is a partner to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, and that they have dedicated local staff in every country they travel in. The organization also differs from typical study abroad programs in that it is focused on student career placement in environments and STEM. "We offer ongoing support for our alumni community, from jobs to events and reunions, and are now funding  education opportunities for underserved students," says Lee, and "99% of alumni say that TGP has refined their purpose: professionally, personally, and academically. We open the door of opportunities for our students, but it's up to them to go through it."

Green Program students learn about sustainability
Photograph courtesy of The Green Program

 

It's quite an alumni network: graduates have gone on to work in sustainability everywhere from SpaceX, Tesla, Boeing, and NASA to The National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

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TGP has a strong social mission as well, which makes the organization more open to a diverse group of students. Every year, they invest around $1,000,000 in the local economies where their programs are hosted, and they're committed to helping underserved students, too, minorities and women in STEM in particular.  

"In 2017, we introduced our workforce development platform and scholarship fund for disadvantaged, underrepresented, and underserved students," Lee says, "our goal with this initiative is to break down key barriers to education abroad and increase diversity in the workforce. This is a serious call for change that needed to happen years ago. We've successfully funded several women and minorities in STEM to enroll in our sustainable development courses abroad, and who are now members of the alumni network where they have access to jobs, internships, mentorships, and like-minded peers." 

Related: How Organic Farming Could Save The World From Global Warming

Green Program students
Photograph courtesy of The Green Program

Women compose a big portion of TGP, even though they are typically not the majority in STEM programs, Lee explains:

"We're proud to say that 52% of our student participants are women in STEM. Our students come from classrooms and will be entering fields that are historically dominated by men. It's important now, more than ever to empower young leaders to be inclusive and understand the benefits and importance of diverse teams. I am a firm believer in the theory that when you educate a woman, you educate an entire generation."

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Since it was founded in 2009, TGP has been called one of the Top 50 Social Impact Ventures in the World at the New York Stock Exchange, and one of the Top 10 Young Companies Driving Social Change at the United Nations Social Innovation Summit.

Related: Scotland Created The World's First Floating Wind Farm To Power 20,000 Homes With Renewable Energy

Green Program team
Photograph courtesy of The Green Program

Lee says that back when she and friends decided to found TGP, it was a huge risk. "I was frustrated with the current academic setting that higher education had to offer and not patient enough to wait four years to figure out what I wanted to do," she says, "I've never taken a business class, which probably would have helped! A lot of what we do feels like we are building the plane as we are flying it, but starting and growing a company, taking calculated risks, and learning how to fail (gracefully) is experiential learning at its finest." 

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She also isn't one of those people who disparages millenials lack of concern for the environment. Being a millenial herself, Lee firmly believes that the next generation cares about environmental issues deeply. "More than ever," she says, "young people know the importance and urgency tied to sustainability and our environment. More so, they are aware of how the detriment of these fields are tied directly to human livelihoods and public health." And that means they're more invested in making change, too. 

The Green Program so far has more than 2000 student leaders and young professionals in their community, and continues to run trips throughout the year. 

Visit TheGreenProgram.com for more information about the program, or to apply.