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Voices of Alumni: Min Zheng

Min Zheng was a LEAF intern in 2002 and returned as a mentor in 2010. In between, she got her degree and traveled to the corners of the Earth exploring how different cultures relate to the environment. Now, she hopes to put what she’s learned to good use in China, the country where her earliest memories of the outdoors are rooted.
"[LEAF] helped me understand the importance of conservation and made me start to think about whether or not it could be a career for me."

Where did you grow up?

Min Zheng:

I was born in a small village in China, but when I was eight years old my family moved to the U.S., so I really grew up in Manhattan. I still remember my house in China – rice fields right in front of my door and a little lake. I walked across the rice field every day to go to school.

That sounds very peaceful. It must have been a big change moving to Manhattan.

Min Zheng:

It was a huge change. Even though all I have now is an image, I remember my village in China being a place full of nature and surrounded by mountains and trees. To suddenly come to a huge city – it was a big adjustment to start living in a small apartment, surrounded by buildings and concrete. I had to learn to adapt to my new surroundings.

You attended the High School for Environmental Studies (HSES). Was that because of your interest in getting back to nature?

Min Zheng:

At that time, there wasn’t the same concept of the environmentalism that there is now. I actually went to HSES because I was interested in studying Japanese, and that was the only school that offered a Japanese language class.

So, what shifted for you? When did you start thinking more about environmental issues?

Min Zheng:

It wasn’t until I got into high school and joined the hiking club that I got the chance to get out of my community and explore things around me. The hiking club really brought me out of my shell in terms of being confident about who I am and getting myself out there – and just enjoying myself. Being in nature brought me a sense of peacefulness, and in a sense, I felt at home.

What was your LEAF experience like?

Min Zheng:

I participated in LEAF in 2002. I was assigned to a chapter in Albany, where we worked on trail maintenance and preventing stream runoff. The experience helped me understand the importance of conservation and made me start to think about whether or not it could be a career for me.

And you did, in fact, go on to study Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont and have remained actively involved in conservation.

Min Zheng:

Yes, the LEAF program was actually my first exposure to college through the school visits we took that summer. I was the first person in my house to go to college, and I was lucky to have the opportunity to combine my studies with travel. During college, I helped research Spider monkey habitat in Costa Rica; worked on a plantation in Oaxaca, Mexico; worked and studied in Yunnan, China; and participated in a three-week field practicum in South Africa.

All these travel experiences provided me with a holistic perspective about environmental conservation and made me realize that working for the environment is not only about preserving pretty places or for recreational activities – it’s about survival.

You’ve had a lot of great experiences already. What’s next?

Min Zheng:

I want to enhance my knowledge of China’s environmental problems. Ideally, I’d like to work for an international organization that improves environmental conditions in China through community advocacy and environmental education.

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