Spotlight on Education: New Environmental Stewardship Program Cultivates Action-oriented Leaders

USIE participants with Representative Mazie Hirono (D-HI) on Capitol Hill


USIE participants Sofiah Jamil, Wong Shu Kuan, and Masikerei Vunicagi at the UHM Lyon Arboretum Native Hawaiian Plant Research Center


USIE participants visit the HPower waste to energy plant in Hawai’i


USIE participants look at Hawai’i’s marine ecology issues first-hand during a deep sea dive.


Program participants cultivate leadership and teamwork skills during the Ropes Course at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu.


USIE participants teach children about environmental conservation at an elementary school in Hawai’i.


USIE participants help offset the carbon footprint of their international flights by planting trees at the UHM Environmental Center.



“It takes a calamity for people to learn and change, but we cannot wait for an environmental catastrophe, the time for change is now,” stated Cai Dingyan from Singapore, one of the 20 young scholars who participated in a recent East-West Center environmental leadership program.  For six weeks these emerging leaders from Malaysia, Singapore, Fiji and Papua New Guinea were immersed in an innovative, transformative, and action-oriented program. The United States Institute on the Environment (USIE) is designed to foster a deeper understanding of the U.S. environmental movement and aid in the development of sustainable pathways to environmental stewardship.


“We are transformers,” declared Chuah Chiew Yen, a biotechnology student from Malaysia focusing on environmental education linked to waste management. “We’re now transformed from passionate environmentalists into environmental leaders who hold strong to our belief that we can make real changes by taking small steps.” 


During the first four weeks of the program, participants met with leaders in Hawai‘i’s environmental movement including representatives from Hawaiian Electric Company; Waste Management, Inc.; Town Restaurant; Ma'o Farm; Hawai‘i State DBEDT’s Clean Energy Initiative; and even East-West Center students coordinating campus recycling programs, among others. In addition, participants planted trees at the University of Hawai‘i Environmental Center and helped restore limu (algae) with Hawaiian elders and youth in Hana, Maui. 


“I learnt from USIE that environmental stewardship is not a matter of a single generation, but rather how this generation relates to the future generations,” stated Lin Wai Hwa, a student from Malaysia working on a sediment core research project studying the heavy metal pollution of human history, which is the chronology time scale in the Sulu Sea (between Malaysia and Philippines). “It shows us that every single action our ancestors made in the past affects all of us today,” explained Lin.


The ideology of many grassroots organizers in Hawai‘i and throughout the U.S.— ‘where the people lead, the leaders will follow’— was woven throughout the program. This democratic nature of the U.S. environmental movement, developed from the participation of diverse communities and individuals across the nation, rather than a top-down, centralized approach.  During the field study in Washington D.C., following a week meeting with scientists and environmental leaders in the San Francisco area, participants examined how effective policies tested by states such as California are then adopted at the national level.


While in the capital, participants met with U.S. Congressmen leading environmental committees that create policies, those who enforce the policies at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and those who defend or challenge policies at the Natural Resources Defense Council.


“We saw the importance of finding a balance between all stakeholder groups,” said Mou Huiting Clara, an analytical chemistry student from Singapore. “Success will not happen overnight and it will definitely not happen with singular and competitive leadership. This is why we have a collective responsibility for the environment, both as individual nations and as international partners.”


According to EWC’s USIE coordinator Christina Monroe, “Participants wanted to know why the U.S. does things a certain way and how can they build upon and improve the model at home.” At the completion of the program, participants presented one-year action plans to take their USIE experience to the next level; transferring the lessons learned to their home countries.  “The environment and proper custodianship is our future,” asserted Apisalome Movono, as student from Fiji researching the environmental and cultural impacts of tourism on indigenous populations. “We as youth leaders must speak up and act on issues that matter.”  “We need to balance livelihood and conservation, create public awareness, build strong conservation-oriented institutions as well as effective leadership, to tackle environmental issues,” added Mou.


“USIE empowered me to act; inspired me to lead; showed me I can if I want to,” declared Subhashni Raj, a research student from Fiji focusing on coral reef biodiversity and conservation and a consultant for the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission.


Funded by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, USIE was organized and administered by the East-West Center in collaboration with more than twenty organizations. Key partners included the University of Hawai‘i’s Environmental Center, Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment, and the Nature Conservancy.  “The East-West Center is ideally situated for environmental exchange programs with it's location in Hawai‘i,” Monroe pointed out. “Since it’s the hotspot of endangered and invasive species and the front line of climate change-induced sea level rise in the U.S.; and it also has a rich history of knowledge and solution sharing in Asia Pacific.”


The participants, ranging from advanced undergraduate and graduate students to young professionals in the field, were competitively selected by the U.S. Embassies in their home countries. Diversity of perspectives was emphasized throughout the program both in the range of presenters and amongst the participants themselves, coming with backgrounds in aerospace engineering, green chemistry, environmental sciences, urban development, tourism, and public health.


For more information on the program visit: