By Darrel Chang, ’19
The subject of the first entry in our Environmental Studies alumni profile feature series is no stranger to trailblazing.
As an enterprising freshman in 2013, Chua Wan Ping (Class of 2017) wrote herself into the opening pages of Yale-NUS College’s annals by cofounding I’dECO: the Yale-NUS Sustainability Movement, the College’s first formal environmental student organization, and serving as its inaugural President. She then took to the national stage in her senior year to cofound the Sustainable Solutions Network (SSN), an ambitious multi-platform portal for facilitating collaboration between environmental stakeholders in Singapore. Just eight months after that, on the eve of her graduation, she became one of the first two students to be admitted to the Concurrent Degree Program (CDP) jointly offered by Yale-NUS College and the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (YFES). The program accelerates the master’s degree curriculum by having students take on a full-time work assignment for one to two years before completing a year of graduate classes at YFES.
Wan Ping always knew that her collegiate activities would revolve around environmentalism in some significant capacity, for she’d long been involved in environmental volunteering – like with the Earth Helpers, a volunteer group organized by the Singapore Environment Council (SEC), for instance – prior to matriculating at Yale-NUS. However, it was not until she’d taken her first Environmental Studies class, ‘Introduction to Environmental Studies,’ that she decided to commit to the major as well. “[The class] gave me a different perspective on what I had been doing, and a clear and coherent framework [for thinking] about making meaningful change,” she shares. “At its heart, Environmental Studies investigates a complex and highly relevant problem of our time. It is a topic that gives me purpose.”
The interdisciplinary focus of the department also whetted Wan Ping’s intellectual appetite. “At Yale-NUS, we have the opportunity to explore interdisciplinary thinking, and understand its merits. There is no topic more interdisciplinary than Environmental Studies. We are encouraged to explore the scientific, social, and humanities sides of the issue, and that is the most important skill I have learnt to apply in solving problems.” She also credits her professors with having constantly inspired and engaged her through captivating, well-designed classes: “The faculty were truly passionate about their area of study, and derive[d] purpose from it. The reason why ES classes were so interesting was because they were highly relevant – our faculty always tried to ground the theories in contemporary examples.”
I’dECO and the SSN are living testaments to Wan Ping’s sustained and profound interest in the environment. “I’m proud to see that [I’dECO] continues to be very active today, even sustaining programs regionally. [Similarly,] when we started the SSN, we were thinking of a way we could go beyond I’dECO, and bring what we learnt in our ES courses to the bigger Singapore community,” she relates. She remains in the leadership team of the SSN, which she describes as a “one-stop resource portal for environmental stakeholders in Singapore,” and is presently collaborating with Techladies, a community for women in Asia to connect, learn, and advance as programmers, to improve the online platform’s user interface. Even with numerous other successes under her belt – like a team silver medal at the 2014 Singapore University Games (SUniG) as Captain of the NUS cross-country team, or staging an “unforgettable” screenplay on modern Chinese literature and film, a topic that ranks as one of her great passions alongside rock-climbing – she nonetheless recognizes the singularity of her environmental achievements: “I like to think that I’ve contributed to building a culture of sustainability [at] Yale-NUS. Wherever we are, sustainability is always a long-drawn battle, but I am glad to see some small successes during my time.”
Indeed, the journey of the Environmental Studies major can be emotionally arduous. Like many of her peers, Wan Ping experienced some hopelessness whilst learning about the myriad environmental challenges of our generation and, concomitantly, the extraordinary social, economic, and institutional obstacles to change. “I like the word that Professor Maniates uses – an increasing[ly] ‘turbulent’ world. Every ES student goes through this development I think: in the first year, we are enthusiastic, passionate, and even slightly anguished about the topic. In the second year, the anger becomes full-blown, and in the third and sometimes fourth, we feel defeat and hopelessness,” she shares. Learning to appreciate the little triumphs, however, has helped her stay focused on the task ahead. “Some of us find hope in the face of all of the injustice we’ve seen, and that gives us the energy to keep at this vocation. I think it was finding that light at the end of the tunnel that gives me strength in this increasing[ly] turbulent world.”
That very light has led her to the HEINEKEN Company, where she is currently fulfilling the CDP’s work placement requirement as a Trainee in Corporate Affairs. Having taken her from Singapore to Ho Chi Minh City and now HEINEKEN’s global headquarters in Amsterdam, her post sees her contributing to four aspects of the company’s operations – Government Affairs, External Communications, Employee Communications, and Sustainability – thereby granting her valuable insight into the workings of large corporations. “My role requires me to work with stakeholders across a range of departments, and to understand, digest, and reframe diverse sets of information,” she explains, “[and] I think the ES education has prepared me well for that. On the Sustainability front, it has given me a lot of background knowledge and perspectives, which has been helpful [for] when we are evaluating each new environmental initiative and opportunity. In my current role in Amsterdam, I work in the Sustainable Development department – so it is a direct application of what I studied.”
The position is well aligned with Wan Ping’s professional goals, a logical extension of the theoretical foundations her coursework has afforded her. Her senior capstone project evaluated the role of advocacy coalitions in shaping the agenda of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a multi-stakeholder sustainability certification program. “Palm oil has been linked to significant social and environmental impacts, but it can also be an extremely efficient crop with [the] potential to offer sustainable livelihoods. At the same time, there [has been] an increase in multi-stakeholder platforms like the RSPO [that] target specific crops or problems emerging,” she reflects. “Both topics are still highly relevant, and I think they will be for a long time to come. Now that I’m sitting on the corporate side of things, my perspective on multi-stakeholder platforms has also grown more nuanced. I’m still learning more about it every day.”
She is particularly appreciative of the opportunity to approach the complex “super wicked problem” that is our imminent planetary calamity from a different angle: “I’ve explored a bit of what ‘solving environmental problems’ means to the NGO, government, and start-up sectors through internships, so going into a big multinational after graduation seemed like a natural step [in order] to understand another approach to sustainability.” She adds, thoughtfully, “To me, each experience is about solving the puzzle: What motivates each institution? How do they define the sustainability problem? How do they relate to each other when solving this wicked problem?”
What’s next for Wan Ping? If her track record is anything to go by, it will surely only be a matter of time before she emerges as a key contributor at some major environmental project in Southeast Asia. For now, though, she refuses to get ahead of herself; when probed about her future plans, she simply muses, “The possibilities seem limitless to me. I will embark on my graduate studies in YFES in 2019, and will use that as a time to orientate myself. Wherever I may be, it’ll be a place where I can [have a] meaningful impact [on] the environment.”