One student’s sustainability journey

Geneva Yang mobilizes fellow students to learn about and act on the UN Sustainable Development Goals

A double major in International Development Studies and Psychology may not be an obvious choice. But for Geneva Yang—U2 student and McGill’s Sustainable Development Goals Campus Coordinator—the opportunity to combine elements of arts thinking and scientific reasoning through the Bachelor of Arts and Science program is exactly why she chose McGill.

Since arriving on campus in 2018, Geneva has been an active member and leader of several student groups: the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, the International Relations Students Association, Model United Nations (SSUNS and McMUN), and the International Development Studies Student Association (IDSSA).

She has also been involved in research through her work in a McGill psychology lab, as an intern with a Kenyan NGO, and as a Research Assistant with the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI), where she has been developing a method for mapping MSSI researchers to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

From Shanghai to Montreal

Geneva’s path to this point began at her high school’s—Shanghai United International School, Jiaoke Campus’—university fair, where she explored the rows of booths, collected pamphlets, and shook the hands of recruiters during a day filled with excitement and eagerness. Geneva was already hoping to attend a North American school for her undergraduate degree but had yet to decide on a university or program.

Geneva approached the McGill booth because of the University’s international reputation and was greeted warmly by the recruiter. She listened to a presentation on the University, and learned about the combined arts and science program—something that blended both of her program interests.

After speaking with the recruiter—whose passion for McGill Geneva credits as one of the key factors in her decision-making—and asking some more probing questions about residence and life in Montreal, Geneva had made her decision. She would come to McGill.

First steps on campus

Having skipped two years early in her high school career, Geneva was just 16 years old when she arrived at McGill.

Geneva's first day of class

Her first day of class was exhilarating, but didn’t come without a touch of nerves. Geneva was still adjusting to university life and Western culture. Before the semester’s start, she had spent time familiarizing herself with the campus and committed herself to learning French. Still, classes were larger than what she had been used to, and she had the added challenge of adjusting to interacting entirely in English.

Within her first month, Geneva joined the Chinese Student and Scholars Association (CSSA)—being appointed Director of Events—as well as Model United Nations (UN)—a passion of hers since high school.

Eden Pien, Co-President of CSSA, describes Geneva as positive, friendly, outgoing, and ready to face any challenge. “Geneva's attitude has inspired many of our members, including myself, to get more engaged and involved in all club activities. Her diligence and efficiency at work has been recognized by all of us throughout her time at CSSA.”

Finding a passion

It was a course in Anthropology and Development (ANTH 212)—taught by then PhD student Graham Fox—that led Geneva to pursue a path in international development and psychology.

Geneva found the wide variety of assignments and discussions motivating. From reading The Anti-Politics Machine—which followed the failure of a development project in Lesotho that ignored culturally significant implications—to presenting thoughts on a documentary that showcased items left behind by migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, she learned how to look at development through an anthropological lens.

“International development is not just economic prosperity or democratization,” Geneva says. “They are all means to enhancing human well-being and maximizing human potential. It entails creating a sustainable, peaceful, equitable, and productive world.”

Student peers

Beyond the classroom, friendships can shape a university experience, and Geneva’s peers at McGill have been a huge source of inspiration.

Geneva’s team at the International Development Studies Students' Association (IDSSA)

At the International Development Studies Students' Association (IDSSA), Geneva’s team organized the Sustainable Development Goals Conversations, a five-part series that focused on specific sustainable development issues in particular regions.

“Human societies have been disrupting, by one way or another, the natural cycle of earth systems, which has consequential impacts on population,” says Elina Lugbull, former IDSSA Vice President of Events. “The inextricable link between international development and sustainability is that today, the biggest impacts of climate change are on those who didn’t create it. Geneva integrated sustainability in the IDSSA at the highest level.”

Keeping a tutoring program going in Kenya

In addition to building awareness around the SDGs, Geneva has been involved in projects that are contributing directly to the goals. Last summer, she interned with Elimu Impact Evaluation Centre—an NGO founded by McGill Economics professor Matthieu Chemin—on a project that offers tutoring by McGill students to primary school students in Kenya. While COVID-19 restrictions kept her from travelling, she still had an opportunity to work with local stakeholders and gain experience with a real-world development project that contributed to SDG 4: ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.

Professor Chemin described Geneva’s responsibilities as testing out new technology, tutoring, recruiting other tutors, and organizing the staff in Kenya. “The tutoring program was in jeopardy because the schools had closed in Kenya, meaning we could no longer organize the tutoring program through the local schools. Geneva helped me organize the project in a completely different way,” he says. “I have been amazed at Geneva’s hard work, enthusiasm and dedication to the project. Thanks to her and other McGill interns involved, the project was able to continue.”

An impact on sustainability at McGill

Geneva now serves as McGill SDG Coordinator—a role initiated by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Canada and supported by the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI). Her mandate is to mobilize students to learn about and act on the SDGs.

“I am deeply passionate about, and firmly believe in the 17 SDGs that seek to unite governments, businesses, civil society, and people all over the world to work towards a more sustainable and equitable future,” she says.

Geneva and members of the McGill SDG Student Hub spearheaded the University’s first ever SDG Week, from Feb. 8-12. Leading up to the event, Geneva organized a 51-day long informational campaign to raise awareness of the SDGs. The week itself featured a series of events, hosted in collaboration with 10 other student groups, focusing on major themes within the SDGs.

In March, the SDG Student Hub, in conjunction with the SSMU Environment Committee, organized Zero-Plastic-Waste Week, to raise awareness on waste reduction. “I have personally been inspired by the invited speakers and started implementing the tips they offered to reduce plastic waste in my everyday life,” Geneva says.

Next up: Geneva is working on the McGill Undergraduate SDG Guide, which will provide new and current students information on how the SDGs are being addressed through courses, research, student groups and other projects.

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