October 18, 2015

The Promising Plight of Environmental Students in Malaysia

The Promising Plight of Environmental Students in Malaysia

Environmental studies are critical to Malaysia's future, yet looked down upon by the general public. Photo Credit anonymous via tOrange

The following story has been drawn from the experience of Xiwen Wendy, an environmental student at University Putra Malaysia.  Wendy explores Malaysia’s outlook on Environmental Sciences, a discipline whose graduates could help stabilize their country’s environment and economy, but a subject that is undervalued and often misunderstood.

Wendy writes:

Looking up at the towering building of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, a trace of envy grew in my heart (it still grows when I simply think about it). People often brag about how awesome it is to be a medical student, or how wonderful it is that their children are medical students, or how great the dream of being a medical doctor is. There are medical students everywhere in our country, from the most renowned University Malaya to private ones such as MAHSA University. Private medical schools are mushrooming, the number of medical students are multiplying each year and the risk of medical graduates not getting a job climbs – but still, the dream of becoming a doctor is something people aspire to.

Exiting the medical campus and turning towards the main campus, one sees my faculty.  It consists of a few easily-overlooked buildings (the tallest one is just three stories high) with less than 100 students per year. When we environmental students talk about our field, they usually give us an expression of confusion and ask, “What is it about?” After some brief explanation, some of them will say, “Oh, that’s great” (without making you feel great) or continue asking, “What do you want to do afterward?  Can you earn money in this field?” and so on.  They might even give a statement like “You have to go overseas to work then.”

They are unaware that the green trend in Malaysia is rising.  This is because it is rising at such a slow rate that people barely notice it. That is one of the biggest differences between environmental students and medical students – people see being a doctor as something professional and ambitious, but don’t know what environmental science is and therefore look down upon it (with its low entry requirements).

I agree that those who get accepted to medical courses at public universities are intelligent and hardworking people – they have to get at least 4.0 in CGPA to be considered for admission. At University Malaya, you even have to go through an intensive interview that the university takes very seriously. Environmental studies, on the other hand, are generally believed to be for students who did not pass exams with flying colors and didn’t get to study what they really wanted to.

This observation comes from my own experience.  When I told people that environmental science was my first choice, they were wide-eyed, exclaiming “Oh wow really???” Sometimes they would continue by saying “You should have taken medical courses.” My results were far from bad, and I could have made that choice.

Me and both of my Chinese coursemates took Environmental Science of our own will, out of ambition, out of the…blue? (I did not expect all of my Chinese coursemates to put environmental science as their first or second priority when filling out the university application form.) Two of us came from matriculation – matriculation students have better chance to enter public university – and the other one from STPM (which is a prestigious pre-university exam). I am really grateful to meet people with the same ambition, even though our perspectives on the environment might be different.

People think highly of medical students partly because they have to cover subjects like anatomy, physiology, microbiology, pathology, immunology, pharmacology and many more subjects with names I do not understand at all in their five years at university.  Well, environmental students take a lot of subjects too.  People normally think that environmental students are lazy people with easy subjects, but our studies include soil science, biodiversity, solid waste management, climatology, hydrology, remote sensing, environmental law, environmental health, meteorology, pollution, drinking water treatment, waste water treatment, envirometrics, bioremediation, environmental forensics, natural resources and so on – which involve all three biological, physical and chemical sciences – in four years.

It might sound like a jack-of-all-trades degree as parts of what we learn are included in other degrees, but learning all the above subjects and how they interrelate is unique to environmental sciences. It’s  just like how medical students have to take all those subjects although they might not specialize in all of them. (The fact is we really don’t get a schedule quite as packed as the medical students’).

Sometimes people ask me what I want to be or do in the future, and my answer is still a “Not sure.” However, this is not because of a lack of options after graduating, but because I know I can do a lot of things with what I study in environmental science. Being a jack-of-all-trades is not necessarily a bad thing, as you can fit in many fields at the same time. Environmental quality assessment? Yes. Conservation and preservation work? No problem. Renewable energy development? Definitely. Manufacturing factories? Why not? Education? Yeah. Agriculture? Sure. Green technology? Yay! Think outside of the box!

There are a lot of environmental science professions out there, and all of them contribute to a better environment for everyone to live in. The world is so big – there must be somewhere that we can focus on and really do something great. On the other hand, here is a cruel fact for medical students: graduating with a medical degree does not guarantee that you’ll be doctor. This is a fact that we have to accept as well.

To environmental students, I say take pride in what you study. We might be perceived as less important than medical students, but we know who we are going to become. We fly in the sky, we roam the land, we dive into the deep ocean. The environment is ours. This is a freedom, a blessing that has been given us. It is all about choices. We should spread environmental awareness and prove to others that we really are something instead of hiding when people ask who we are. We are not unwanted students who were randomly thrown into this course. See the value in environmental studies, see the value in ourselves.


About the Author:

Originally from Nibong Tebal, Penang,  Xiwen Wendy is a student earning a degree in Environmental Science at University Putra Malaysia.  Wendy is an outreach manager at Malaysian Environmental Sustainability Youth Movement (MESYM), an online platform connecting groups and individuals to the green movement in Malaysia, and also writes current and informative environmental articles on her blog, Confessions of an Environmental Student.

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