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Poonam Sandhu

Poonam Sandhu is the Youth Fellow for UNEP RONA (United Nations Environment Programme -Regional Office for North America) and is expanding a program called TunzaNA (find out more below) in North America through outreach within colleges and universities. Licensed as a Registered Nurse in Vancouver, Canada, and in Washington, DC she has a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and recently completed a Master of Public Health at The George Washington University. Poonam has dedicated the last decade of her life to film, dance, and entertainment for youth and young adults in English, Punjabi and Hindi. Poonam is delighted to help young people “green-up” their campuses and their cities.

Estelle: What is the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and its mandate?

Poonam Sandhu: The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) established in 1972, is the voice for the environment within the United Nations system. UNEP acts as a catalyst, advocate, educator and facilitator to promote the wise use and sustainable development of the global environment.

UNEP work encompasses:

  • Assessing global, regional and national environmental conditions and trends
  • Developing international and national environmental instruments
  • Strengthening institutions for the wise management of the environment

UNEP’s mission is to “provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations”. UNEP’s mandate is to “be the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, that promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimensions of sustainable development within the United Nations system and that serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment”. Find out more about UNEP’s work through their annual reports available here: http://www.unep.org/annualreport/

 EA: How did you come to your position at UNEP?

PS: I work for UNEP’s Regional Office for North America (RONA). In the spring of 2013, I met UNEP RONA staff at a conference and stayed in contact with them thereafter. Towards the end of my Master of Public Health degree I reached out to Elisabeth Guilbaud-Cox, Head of Communications for UNEP RONA, who then kindly informed me of an upcoming fellowship opportunity. I applied for the position and was very thankful to have been selected as the Youth Fellow for UNEP RONA.

EA: What does a typical day at work look like for you?

PS: Luckily there is nothing typical about my job and that’s one of the things that I love! Our office hours are from 9am – 5pm every day and in those eight hours you can find me building website material, attending meetings, presenting videoconferences, researching, budgeting, mentoring interns or traveling to universities in the U.S. or Canada. Of course, all the while I stay connected to my emails and have to re-prioritize tasks as needed. One thing I never forget is to find time to step away from the computer and laugh out loud with my colleagues. Laughter and moderate level physical activity can make even a stressful day seem light and easy.

EA: What do you love most about your job?

PS: I love spending time with students and connecting their interests with UNEP’s incredible work. I do this by introducing the students to UNEP’s youth program titled, Tunza. Find out more about the global program here http://www.unep.org/tunza/ or the North American program here: http://www.unep.org/tunza/na. Seeing the passion, drive and critical thinking that comes from students is amazing. Even more rewarding is bringing their ideas to regional and international platforms.

EA: What is the most challenging aspect of the work you do?

PS: Working for an international organization, I have learned that it takes time to achieve certain goals because certain processes need to take place in order to create change. Coming from a nursing background I am accustomed to meeting my patients’ needs as soon as possible to minimize their distress. It is quite different in the world of policy change and within a global organization. For example, even though people are already suffering from the impacts of climate change, there is no magical pill to administer that will correct the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations. Lowering CO2 emissions is a matter of getting people and policy makers to understand the science of climate change and then empowering them to take actions that reduce CO2 emissions. All of this takes time, patience and persistence.

EA: Tell us a bit more about your educational background. What program(s) did you take and how did you find out about it?

PS: I started off earning a Bachelor of General Studies at Simon Fraser University (in British Columbia). Within this program I had the pleasure of dancing every day for my minor in Contemporary Dance, while learning the science of the body in motion through my extended minor in Kinesiology.  Right after SFU, I got accepted into the Langara College nursing program, where I compounded my understanding of the human body by learning about it in a diseased state. Nursing was the perfect progression because it taught me the art and science of healing the human body.While practicing as a Registered Nurse, I realized that health care practitioners are exposed to serious chemical and environmental hazards, which lead me to take courses in Disability Management and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). In addition, I realized that the health care industry itself was creating a mountain of garbage that was recyclable – but we weren’t recycling. Why I wondered? I also questioned how to prevent patients from arriving in the hospital in the first place. All of these inquiries lead to my latest degree, a Master of Public Health (MPH) in Environmental Health Science and Policy from The George Washington University in Washington, DC.

EA: What education and training should utmONErs who want to work within the field of environmental conservation think about for college or university?

PS: It is becoming more and more apparent that environmental conservation is no longer a stand-alone field. Sustainability must pervade all areas of work, thus learning the fundamentals of environmental science will help these young women bring the concepts of environmental conservation to any field. Many colleges and universities offer sustainability courses, minors or even degrees in environmental science – that’s a good start. The next step is to bolster the education with hands-on training. These young women could work in their local community gardens, volunteer for environmental groups or figure out how to reduce waste in their homes, schools or cities. The hands-on experience will teach them how to turn theory into action.

EA: How could UTM students get involved with UNEP’s programs?

PS: So glad you asked! As mentioned above, UNEP has a youth engagement program called Tunza (www.unep.org/tunza). The North American program, TunzaNA, unites youth from Canada and the U.S. on key issues. For 2014-15 TunzaNA is focusing on “youth driven policy change”. You can learn more about the program requirements through our website www.unep.org/tunza/na or by emailing us at tunzana@unep.org.

EA: What gives you your inner strength?

PS: Two things: 1 – I am an unwavering optimist. I really believe where there is a will, there is a way. Sometimes dreams don’t get fulfilled because we change our priorities, but as long as you place lots of will power behind your goal – anything is possible. 2 – My love for dance. I was probably wiggling and wriggling to a funky beat right after I was born. Dancing makes me smile from ear-to-ear and it brings me physical, mental and spiritual strength.  The inevitable truth of life is that one-day we will die. So while I am here on earth, fighting the good fight, I stay happy by dancing as often as I can.

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At the end of the utmONE Connect session, we were asked to write a letter to our future selves describing our current state of mind. We then sealed our letters in an envelope and handed them over to our Connection Leaders to hold onto until the end of the school year. It will be interesting to see how much I will have changed by next April!

future me

For those of you who are curious, here’s how my letter went:

Dear future me,

First of all, because you’re reading this, I’ll assume that you’re still alive and I would like to congratulate you for surviving your first year of university. This is probably your greatest achievement in life so far!

To be frank, I’m not quite sure if I will be able to find words that will accurately describe my current state of mind. My first week at UTM was exciting, interesting, but also exhausting. In high school, we didn’t do any work for two weeks or so as we were eased back into our school routine and I initially thought that the first lecture for each course would be similar and would just consist of the professor introducing himself/herself and explaining the syllabus. However, I soon realized that it wasn’t the case and we started tackling the courses’ core content right away. By Wednesday evening, my agenda was already filled with assignments; from reading two entire chapters of a voluminous textbook to writing a short essay due on Monday morning. I am sad to report that since Monday, I have spent every evening in the library, and there hasn’t been a night that has seen me get home before 9pm. On the bright side, I’m thrilled that I chose to attend an institution with a really nice (and brand new!) library which makes the thought of spending hundreds of hours there somewhat less unappealing. I already consider the “silent section” of the library to be my second home.

Despite the hard work required, I loved most of the lectures. I felt so privileged to be able to listen to fascinating lectures by professors who seemed to be very passionate about their respective fields of study. It seemed as if a whole new intellectual world had opened up and like a sponge, I tried my best to take in everything. Right now, my greatest insecurity is that I won’t meet the expectations that everyone else has set for me. Questions like “Do I really belong in a university?” and “What if I’m not intelligent enough to grasp complex concepts?” are starting to hover in my head. I hope to be able to get those thoughts out of my brain as soon as possible…

Good luck with the next 3 years of university!

Sincerely,

Your past self

Now tell us: What would YOU write in a letter to your future self? 🙂