Hello my name is Carolyn Lam, I am currently a junior at Environmental Charter High School, which is located in Southern California. I am very blessed that I attend an environmental school. I learn the lessons of sustainability every single day, and for the past three years now that’s all I’ve ever known. Growing up, my family moved around a lot and I was able to see so many different aspects of American society. Everything around me was always constantly changing and as a child I learned to accept change and welcome it as it comes. But the one thing that has always been consistent in my life is my need for education. I’ll be honest — school did not come naturally to me, I felt very lost at times and it was this constant game of catch up. But I had this empowering experience when I was only ten years old. My family had just moved from Colorado to Virginia and it was my first day of fifth grade at a new school, and I remember telling myself “I want to be the smartest kid in the class.” That initial thought ignited a fire that is still burning to this day. I’m very grateful that I found a sense of motivation at such a young age because it taught me good work ethic.
When I moved to California after middle school, a family member had introduced me to Environmental Charter High School and I was very lucky to get accepted, but at first I was extremely hesitant. I didn’t want to be a tree hugger and I thought it would be a huge waste of time. I attended anyways and right away I knew this school would be my sanctuary. The curriculum demanded a lot from me and challenged me to work even harder. College was not a matter of if, but when and where. Within my freshmen year I was exposed to a completely unknown realm of careers that catered towards the environment. From the beginning I was reminded of the need for people like me to represent my generation and “be the change.”
A unique aspect that I’ve experienced with green education are the outdoor trips. These trips reiterate the fact that I am one with the earth. For my junior class trip this year we went backpacking in Los Padres National Forest in Ojai, California.
On the trip I really got to experience a deeper sense of community. I’m the type of person that is very competitive. Actually no — I’m the most competitive person at school. But on this trip I had to rely a lot on my group members and being able to have that mutual support really enhanced our experience. We built a system of deeper trust and connectivity with not only each other but with nature as well.
Sustainability is not just about green technology and innovation — that is certainly an aspect, but so is community. By being so close with my classmates and my teachers I’m able to accomplish so many things because the people around me have the same goals. It definitely gets hard and discouraging at times when you think about environmentalism and all of the damage we’ve done as a species, and it’s nice to have a community that helps you build new solutions and add deeper levels to your own perspective.
Education requires a lot of trial and error, especially green education and it’s natural for failure to occur. But if you don’t have that feedback loop, you won’t get anywhere as an educator, student or innovator. When I was backpacking I realized I have my own unique perspective on the world and sometimes education doesn’t leave room for perspectives and that aspect definitely gets neglected. By having the opportunity to experience outdoor education I’ve realized it takes a lot of collaboration and the more perspectives you have when living in the wild, the more you learn.
At my school there is an elective class called Green Ambassadors, where we learn about current environmental issues and try to brainstorm potential solutions. I am also a part of the Green Ambassadors Internship, which is an after school club for students who took the course and want to do more. The internship is about going out into the community and implementing the solutions that we learn in class. This really closes the gap between our education and its application for the real world. This is my second year as an intern and we’ve done so many service learning projects with the community. We’ve performed sustainability audits for local companies, planted rain gardens with different non-profit organizations, and given multiple presentations at youth conferences and workshops. Since the internship is student-led it requires a lot of teamwork. The process of planning, creating and implementing all of these ideas has taught me how to become a better leader.
My definition of a leader before green education came into my life was someone who had the power and influence to make other people see that their way was the “right” way. But very quickly I realized that type of mindset would fail me, especially in this realm of education. I have learned through green education that an effective leader knows how to listen and keeps an open mind. It’s about collaboration, and collective perspectives provide different layers of depth and meaning to any project.
Education is like a blanket that doesn’t cover everyone. But when you incorporate sustainability, outdoor trips, and community building, you reach those students who would otherwise be left out.
Please keep doing the things you’re doing because you are of value to all of your students even when they don’t tell you. I now consider myself a lifelong advocate for the environment and the lessons of sustainability will follow me forever! It’s because I have an innovative and inclusive education that allows me to shape the person I want to be. When I get older and look back I’ll realize how I influence the world is how my education influenced me.