After a long and bumpy ride, we finally arrived at Phnom Penh on Tuesday night. Bright and early Wednesday morning we headed off to the Conservation International (CI) office to talk to Tracey Farrel, the Senior Technical Advisor at CI. She talked to us about their Greater Mekong Program in Cambodia, which focuses on conservation of nature, that humans can still benefit from, as well as development of policy to help conserve biodiversity. Part of Tracey’s presentation included the opportunities and challenges for NGOs in Cambodia. The challenges with this kind of work, particularly in Cambodia, are overwhelming to say the least.

I find the most important and difficult challenge to overcome is that of the value of nature to the local people of Cambodia. Tracey touched on the need for a cultural value shift before any progress can be made. How can you change how a whole society thinks about their surrounding environment?  If it were possible, how long would it take for an individual’s value of nature to change from instrumental to intrinsic and aesthetic?  What about for a whole community who depend on the natural resources around them for their everyday lives?  These thoughts ran through my mind throughout our trips to multiple NGOs and conservation groups.

I am not saying all of this as if there is no hope for conservation; I actually think the opposite. We have seen many projects and met with many organizations that have made incredible differences in conservation of the environment here in Cambodia. I guess I am saying this as a way of thanking the people we have met for all of their hard work. Making these changes is not, by any means, an easy task. It takes a lot of energy, hard work and persistence. Failure is also fairly inevitable, but slowly and surely change is made and it is very apparent.

I personally, along with another classmate Lisa, are likely to go down the medical track rather than environmental, but I want my other fellow classmates to know how much hope and respect I have for them and the field they are heading into. Our group is full of driven and extremely thoughtful individuals who have so much to offer to the environmental field. Our seniors, Kelsey and Jake, are studying geography and environmental policy, and offer insight into conversations far beyond my current knowledge of the subject. The amount of material they have read combined, along with their critical thinking about issues is something I aspire to and continuously makes me think deeper about.

Then we have Joe who wants to become a vet and is omniscient when it comes to animals. He knows everything about every single species we have seen here in Cambodia.  It amazes me; I mean half the animals I have never even seen before! Then Virak is studying environmental engineering.  Julia’s studying environmental studies—specifically in coastal regions. Ali’s focus is environmental and urban studies. And last but certainly not least, we have Meghan, studying environmental science and spatial analysis.

Working and learning alongside these individuals has been incredible as it offers perspectives from all different angles of the environmental field, as well as views from outside of it.  While I know the path of conservation is very difficult and can be hard to handle at times, I have full confidence in my classmates that they, especially after this semester, will make significant changes to our planet. I have much faith in all of them and I hope they do for themselves as well!