Mel Phadtare '16 (Australia and U.K.)

I joined MESPOM Batch-10 during 2014-2016 and studied in Budapest, Lesvos, Netherlands, UK and Lund. Before coming to the degree program, I had already enjoyed a career across the water, waste, soil and food production, communications, CSR, community engagement, climate change, and disaster risk management sectors. That’s because I completed a Bachelors of Applied Science in Environmental Assessment and Management back in 1995. I took roles in government, consulting, NGO, academic and freelancing sectors, focusing on gaining insights and applying knowledge with others in urban and rural settings. I’ve been very lucky to work in Australia, the UK, Canada, Vietnam, Laos, Brazil and Greece, often juggling volunteer/pro bono opportunities as well.

To pursue a Masters a bit later in life was a decision I made to primarily complement and question my professional knowledge base, and secondly to secure a diploma increasingly becoming a prerequisite exclusive from expertise. I was keen to study more cutting edge solutions to the challenges I was seeing and meet other professionals pushing the boundaries in global critical thinking on traditional approaches, including that of human behaviour and response to sustainable solutions. I looked extensively at programs and came across MESPOM and felt it aligned with the variety of theoretical and practical opportunities I was wanting, with a bonus of gaining living experience and insights in Central, Northern and Mediterranean Europe.

MESPOM met my expectations in terms of introducing the policies, cultures and environmental challenges/opportunities in the settings we lived. In this sense, it was more holistic than perhaps other degree programs.

It was hard work for me on different levels, not being a student for so many years, being a practitioner, seeking to be inspired by each lecture, being closer in age to the profs. than my classmates…I had to adjust. I enjoyed researching my own topics, such as ‘Resilient Cities’ selected for the student symposium. Energy and transition classes delivered by Associate Professor Michael LaBelle were future forward, thought-provoking and inspiring. His structure was great and the assignments and readings provided value-add for anyone interested in the energy demand/supply sector. Likewise, biodiversity and conservation classes and excursions with Dr. Brandon Anthony, as well as water resources management classes with Dan Cogalniceanu were stimulating and engaging. Besides this Budapest is a beautiful city to live in.

Studies at the Aegean University on scenic Lesvos Island, offered practical case studies on traditional olive and dairy agriculture as well as small island sustainability challenges; energy-water-waste. Macro level however, the most significant thing at the time (May 2015), was the arrival of refugees from mainly Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. The beckoning crisis of war and climate driven migration was very real and left an imprint.

Lund University raised the bar in terms of structure, content, and teaching style of the professors, in a beautiful and highly functional city with its amazing network of safe, green bike paths. In addition, field trips to companies such as Nordic Sugar, Absolut Vodka, IKEA and Tetra Pak provided a good understanding of best practice of industrial sustainability. My thesis was sponsored by the Swedish Energy Agency and focused on case studies of the Netherlands and UK: ‘Shining a light on Extended Producer Responsibility and Circular Economy Potential’, with a focus on LEDs. I had the chance to interview sustainability heads at Philips as producers, light recyclers, WEEE policy makers and specialists in circular economy. It was a rich learning experience supported by Dr. Naoko Tojo, Professor Thomas Lindhqvist and Jessika Luth Richter.

Post-studies I had a hankering to get back to Lesvos Island after forming some close friendships and retaining a deep interest in the refugee crisis. With the help of Aegean University’s Professor Petros Gaganis and Michael Bakas, I made contact with ActionAid Hellas who was searching for a manager at the time. With those stars aligning, and following a couple of interviews, I was hired as Head, Humanitarian Response Program. It was somewhat unexpected as a non-Greek to land a great job on an island, within a month of graduating, on a humanitarian rather than environmental trajectory. It was an amazing opportunity and really a matter of right place, right time.

In my position I was responsible for managing two teams of 23 staff running a program with vulnerable female refugees, at 3 sites on Lesvos and 2 camps in Athens region. I was also responsible for strategic direction and external relationships with the Ministry of Migration and Policy, Army, Navy, UNHCR and other NGOs to attempt to coordinate an effective response. ActionAid Hellas provided critical services in protection including psychosocial support, group discussions on female leadership and counseling. As well we delivered empowerment activities such as: language courses (German, French, English, Greek), financial literacy, theatre and music, cultural orientation and fitness classes. Our program also included day trips from the camp to provide women with respite. Aegean University’s Associate Professor Thanasis Kizos was generous in agreeing to host 35 women from Kera Tepe Camp, on an agricultural heritage walk through the lovely Asomatos village, the same walk he took MESPOM Batch 10 students on the previous year!

In August 2017, having just completed a hectic year with ActionAid, within an ever-changing Greek-EU context, I have decided to take a break and will rejoin good friends in Lesvos. It was an incredible learning experience, very challenging, often disheartening and very insightful in terms of mass migration and impacts. For those interested in the humanitarian/disaster space, I would say encouragingly, effective skills are needed. Camp-based communities and urban integration projects require an infusion of sustainable design and operational systems in water-food-energy at a basic level, and education with residents to build green jobs and approaches around the world.

That leads me to my next step at this stage – I’m moving to Colombia as a Climate Change and Ecosystems Based Manager under the EU Aid Volunteer sponsored program for 12-months.

MESPOM has been an important part of my recent journey offering mixed personal and professional benefits, the most significant of which were unexpected and profound.

Read more about the program Mel is about to join here: https://mdf.nl/volunteering-high-return-investment

Read about ActionAid’s support for women refugees on the topic of menstruation: https://www.actionaid.org.uk/blog/news/2017/06/19/why-menstruation-matters-for-refugee-women