Meet Chevening Environmental Volunteer of the Year - Benjamin Ong
Name: Benjamin Ong
Course: MSc Sustainable Development
University: University of St Andrews
Congratulations on your environmental volunteer of the year award. Tell us about the cause you volunteered for and why you chose that cause.
Inspired by the wider Transition Towns movement, Transition University of St Andrews was initiated in 2009 as a staff, student, and local resident-led sustainability organisation. We are working across the community of St Andrews to make our town more resilient in the face of climate change and economic uncertainty. Transition undertakes projects across diverse environmental themes including food, transport, skill-sharing, waste reduction, and sustainable living.
I chose this cause because I am a firm believer in bottom-up grassroots movements. Furthermore, Transition has a lot of similarities to the sustainability movement at the University of Malaya, where I studied and worked prior to coming here. I was keen to learn more about the movement in St Andrews, as well as bring some of my own volunteer experience to the table.
What specific projects did you help with when you were volunteering?
I was Transition’s first Mycorrhizae (pronounced “my-co-RYE-zee”), a position created to improve communication between Transition’s many sub-projects and to stimulate volunteer participation. In this capacity I coordinated a weekly newsletter and acted as a point of contact for new volunteers. Named after the relationship between tree roots and fungi that helps to improve nutrient absorption by the tree, the Mycorrhizae helps “nourish” Transition from the grassroots up.
In addition, I volunteered at the Edible Campus gardens, a low-carbon initiative aimed at encouraging the campus and local community to grow their own vegetables and fruit. I served at their monthly Bike to Work Breakfasts, events that encourage cycling amongst staff and postgraduates. I also participated in two beach cleans in St Andrews.
You volunteered 100 hours of your time, which is brilliant. How did you make time to do this much volunteering alongside your course?
I’d like to think that St Andrews is such an isolated town, there’s not much else to do! But really, I think it was just a simple matter of time management: four hours a week during term time, on average, isn’t much. I also feel that setting time aside for volunteer work helped contribute to a good work-life balance. And I still had plenty of time left over for events, exploration, and entertainment!
What difference does volunteering make? Why should other scholars volunteer?
Chevening prizes leadership, but leadership is not always about being at the top or in front; often, it calls for a lot of hard work behind the scenes and out of the limelight. Volunteering challenges the power systems of the world because it requires a giving of yourself, of your time and energy, without the usual promises of worldly compensation.
We scholars often think of what we can get out of our year here, which is all well and fine (we only have a year and ought to make the most of it!), but I believe it is also worth thinking about what we can give back. Cheveners have so much in the way of skills, knowledge, and experience to share. The value of our time here lies not only in what we take with us, but also in what we leave behind.
As you are studying sustainable development, how did your environmental volunteering fit with that?
In a world where sustainability is the new buzzword, I believe we need to look beyond the ‘greenwash’ and media slogans. Transition was a key factor in my decision to study Sustainable Development here in St Andrews, as it seemed a good opportunity to mix theory with practice. The University of St Andrews aspires to become the first carbon-neutral university in the UK, and Transition is, to my mind, a solid step in that direction.
Volunteering with Transition put me in touch with people who were working on the ground. I came to learn of the intention to integrate research and practice (an ‘Achilles’ heel’ of older, more established ‘research universities’) using the Living Labs model. I am now working on a dissertation investigating urban biodiversity conservation and issues surrounding the proposed design and implementation of a campus biodiversity action plan. You could say that getting involved with Transition helped lead me here.
What did you learn from the experience?
It was really fun to be a student-volunteer once more, and it brought back fond memories of my undergraduate days! Even as we talk about networking and collaboration on an international front, there is a need to focus on the local community because it is the building block of the global society. I share Transition’s view that addressing the world’s challenges calls for concerted effort and collaboration at a local scale. Transition is a small organisation, and we volunteers are small people. But this is the big idea: that change can only happen across the globe if we first look in our own backyards.
Your year in the UK is nearly at an end. What do you plan to do when you return home?
I will resume my conservation education and outreach work, based at the University of Malaya’s Rimba Ilmu Botanic Garden, while figuring out what comes next and considering future opportunities! I look forward to tying up loose ends, sharing my learnings, and experiences from this year away. Hopefully this will inspire the colleagues, staff, and students I’ve had the pleasure of working with over the last few years.