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Student perspective: understanding sustainable development through the Byron Fellowship

12 August 2013

Theodore Pang, who completed his undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Economics this summer, describes how week-long Byron Fellowship programme affected his thoughts on sustainable development, positive psychology and smores.

Covered bridge in Indiana. Image by Theodore Pang.
Theodore Pang

I was elated to receive my acceptance email to attend the Byron Fellowship this summer. This is a one-week, interdisciplinary programme in leadership and sustainable community development held in Indiana, USA. Because of my career interest in realising possibilities at the intersection of entrepreneurial action and community development, the programme seemed like the perfect next step for me before I officially left UCL as an undergraduate. Indeed, it proved to be a most inspiring journey which exceeded my expectations due to the personal growth I experienced over the mere six days, and also owing to the strong network of friendships formed on the programme.

Right from the outset, our facilitators cracked the myth that sustainable development is all about cutting down (or being caught up in some emissions blame game) and we were exposed to nuggets from applied positive psychology. Specifically, we learned that language matters in inspiring change – try saying “don’t think of a pink elephant”, and chances are your listeners will already have pictured a pink elephant in their minds! To achieve the same objective we could say instead, “think of a scrumptious, fragrant, warm smore” (smore: fabulously yummy American campfire snack of roasted marshmallows and chocolate sandwiched between two pieces of biscuit). This illustrates how affirming positives is more powerful than negating negatives. So instead of channeling our attention toward mitigating the negatives (which recognises tradeoffs within a broader status quo), we could focus on creating positive outcomes for the world (which transforms the status quo).

We learned that humans adopt a fight-or-flight response under stressful conditions, which is useful for dealing with the problem at hand, but this has been shown to limit creativity and network-building. On the other hand, having a positive sense of being, characterised by the positive framing of language and thought, facilitates both lateral thinking and collaboration, which in turn allow us to spot new opportunities to do things better. And because of this, I believe the term ‘sustainable development’ does not do justice to the programme – a more representative term is ‘interconnected flourishing’.

Fossil creek. Image by Theodore Pang.

Nature, if you pardon the pun, naturally featured prominently on the agenda. The Fellowship was held in Turkey Run State Park, a place of rustic beauty in Indiana. By the end of the programme, we had visited a modern commercial farm, an Amish farm and a lakeside eco-village, as well as enjoyed treks into epic landscapes such as an ancient glacial valley and a creek of rare fossils! Through innovative and engaging outdoor activities while being immersed in the heart of all that natural scenery, we got to appreciate the interconnectedness between humans and nature beyond a mere academic level. This set the stage for broader reflection into themes of human action and sustainable living.

Facilitators and guest speakers, many of whom came from professions with significant environmental influence, contributed to this conversation throughout the week. Among several others, there was a retired chemical engineer from the oil and gas sector, sustainability consultants, the founder of a private homebuilding business and the Indiana head of The Nature Conservancy. We got the opportunity to engage with them on a personal level and find out about their challenges, as well as how they find ways to use their professional expertise to create positive environmental impact. We also had (amid even more great scenery, of course) the opportunity to engage in vision-crafting exercises – platforms to introspect, distill a vision of a better world and share openly our individual visions.

Yet we covered much more than just environmental flourishing. In keeping with the idea of ‘interconnected flourishing’, the programme had a big focus on interpersonal relationships, a social flourishing. Again, there was a dazzling array of facilitators to support these sessions. We had a former McKinsey consultant turned life coach, the founder of an innovative education company which teaches science via experiential learning, an architect, and a legendary jazz pianist for this.

Much time was dedicated to personal development, with conflict management, open communication and creative expression all covered. These sessions, especially ones in poetry, painting with watercolour, spontaneous movement and physical theatre, added much colour to the programme and gave sharp focus to the idea of flourishing as being a holistic concept encompassing the health of both natural and human communities. I appreciated that we had informal case studies through which we could put these new skills to the test, discussing topics like Amish community practices, exclusive communities and spaces for creativity and play.

Fossil creek. Image by Theodore Pang.

The idea of vocation – one’s chosen domain of expertise – was also much discussed. Many of us were graduating students so it was apt that the facilitators had us build our visions and be mindful to pursue our vocation with intention (and not drift with the tide). Personally, I found resonance with the following statement: “Ask not what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive.”

And with that, I urge future applicants to consider what makes you come alive. It could be renewable energy that is ‘clean, green and mean’, or it could be building close ties in the local community. But take some time to think it through and talk it out, and see if you can think of how you can align your vocation with interconnected flourishing – go beyond mere profit and loss and explore how you can contribute to something bigger.

Then be mindful, have a positive sense of being and go about making it a reality.

Theodore Pang finished the last exam for his UCL undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Economics literally hours before he flew off for the 2013 Byron Fellowship. He is thankful to the wonderful course facilitators and generous sponsor, for UCL’s strong support in making it possible for him to attend, to the amazing fellow Fellows and of course, for smores – the embodiment of warm American hospitality.

Images by Theodore Pang.

Page last modified on 12 aug 13 10:03

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