Melissa Lee, The GREEN Program
Focused on short-term, sustainable study abroad, The GREEN Program is on mission to educate and empower future sustainability leaders. Founder and CEO Melissa Lee discusses programs from Peru to Nepal, and how the sector can be more sustainable.
The PIE: Tell us about The GREEN Program. What drove you to create it?
Melissa Lee: My story with The GREEN Program started when I was a student. I was unclear on what I wanted to do with my studies, and how it translated into making a difference in the world.
At the time, I had peers who were studying engineering or environmental fields, who were unable to study abroad in the traditional sense for a whole year or even a semester without graduating late. STEM fields really did not have a lot of opportunity to gain international education that fit their curriculum.
“STEM fields really did not have a lot of opportunity to gain international education that fit their curriculum”
What was missing for us was a critical experience element in our education – how were we expected to build the future energy infrastructure or cities towards a more sustainable world without gaining any practical hands-on experience before we graduate?
Fast forward to what we’re doing now: we’ve been able to reinvent and create a new model for short-term, high-impact sustainable education and study abroad.
We are proud that 95% of TGP students experience a sustainability-related shift with an increase in awareness and consciousness of personal impacts, personal exchange, and expertise in sustainability issues.
The PIE: What do you offer students and how does this link to sustainability in education?
ML: Our mission is to educate and empower future sustainability leaders through experiential education travel, and adventure. The goal is to design high-impact educational programs that drive climate action, long-term.
Our programs are eight to 10 days long and allow the busiest student to be able to get an international experience and up to three graduate credits.
Our course framework is focused around the Sustainable Development Goals. Every program incorporates a minimum of two SDGs.
Our programs specialise in granting industry access, opening the doors to facilities and local communities that you can’t just walk into on a normal trip.
“Our programs specialise in granting industry access”
From Iceland’s largest geothermal power plants to Fukushima’s disaster zones, we’re suiting up and going into nuclear facilities and the epicentres of our world’s top case studies of sustainable development.
The PIE: Are your programs specifically geared towards STEM students?
ML: While a majority of our participants represent STEM fields, we have had over 180 majors represented on our programs over the years. A recent study conducted by Uppsala University found that the results of TGP’s programs underlines the transformative impact of experiential learning, putting educational experiences into purposeful actions.
Half of the employed survey participants and TGP alumni are already working in the field of sustainability, and of those who changed their studies, 74% switched to a degree track related to sustainability.
The PIE: The GREEN Program goes to places all over the world. If you were a student again, which one would you pick?
ML: Every program is so unique it is nearly impossible to select just one. Since our programs are short-term, participants can attend several so this is the order that I would personally do: I would go to Peru, Japan, Iceland and Nepal because they each tell their own unique story.
In Peru, we’re uncovering the history and the culture of what ancient Incas did for sustainable management for their water resources.
Then in Fukushima, Japan, it’s fascinating to see since how the government and local communities are transitioning to a 100% renewables or nuclear economy by 2040, and they’re on track for it.
In Iceland, they’re running on nearly 100% renewable energy. But what are the challenges that they’re facing now? Many environmentalists are actually protesting the development of more renewable energy at this point as 80% of the power generated is going to supply high polluting industries. Here, we must ask, is renewable energy necessarily sustainable?
In Nepal, we analyse and learn about the role that solar microgrid systems play in rural development. During the program, we will have a local homestay experience and install a solar microgrid system to provide electricity or running water.
All of these programs exemplify how different sustainability and development is across the planet. What’s important is how we draw parallels from our travel experiences to home, and realise that no one is exempt from the effects of climate change.
The same study from Uppsala University found that our model of education for sustainable development works.
The establishment of a connection between the students, their exchange with locals and professionals, but mainly the immersion into a foreign setting were found to cause long-lasting impacts.
The PIE: Last year you launched your first master’s degree program. Can you talk a bit about it?
ML: We’ve been working on a new one-year master’s of science degree in international sustainable development and climate change in partnership with Antioch University New England for the past few years and currently have our first cohort that started in 2020.
The program offers a blend of interactive, online curriculum, and also integrates three global experiences with The GREEN Program. So not only are students learning from the amazing faculty from Antioch University, they are also getting three TGP experiences.
The PIE: You also introduced smart certificates last year. What are they?
“TGP’s smart certificate is a blockchain verified digital certificate”
ML: TGP’s smart certificate is a blockchain verified digital certificate. Participants who complete their course will be issued a Certificate of Completion, with access to job insights and jobs that are available right now to connect their new skill sets to sustainability careers.
The PIE: And are you also using tech to continue your programs during Covid-19?
ML: Since Covid-19, our team had to adapt and evolve quickly, like many others. We’ve introduced a fully online model, and our hybrid program – “Learn Now, Travel Later”.
With this mode, students take the online courses from the program and then travel when it’s safe to do so again.
The PIE: How could the international education sector as a whole become more sustainable?
ML: I believe it is our responsibility to see how we can shift our practises and operations internally, but also explore how we as educators can play a larger role creating the sustainable workforce that our planet needs.
As an industry, we need to push past carbon offsetting. It’s a band-aid solution for the carbon emissions and only a piece of what we are capable of improving.
“As an industry, we need to push past carbon offsetting”
I am interested in exploring strategic partnerships with like-minded partners and am a strong believer in intentional design.
When creating programs, providers need to consider things like how far students need to travel and how program destinations are sourcing their power. Are ESGs (environmental and social governance) measured in our organisations’ success metrics? Where are our teams sourcing office supplies, and where do the meals come from on your programs? We can achieve more sustainable programs by intentional design.
There is a lot of potential to improve our industry. The most important part is that we all must pick one action element right now and begin.