Alumni Story by Cécile Tang: How MESPOM helped me shape my career in wildlife conservation

January 13, 2021

I’m engaged in efforts to empower youth to act for nature and the environment

How are you engaged in your current role? 

Currently I’m the co-director of Youth for Wildlife Conservation, a global youth NGO that focuses on bringing youth perspectives into international conservation policy spheres. More specifically, we focus on wildlife trade issues and the UN CITES Convention (that’s the intergovernmental convention that regulates the trade of endangered species). More globally, I’m engaged in efforts to empower youth to act for nature and the environment. Finally, I’m an occasional independent contractor for non-profits dedicated to the integration of Asian immigrants coming to Canada, another cause that is close to my heart.

How and when did your interest in wildlife conservation arise?

My interest and passion for nature and conservation developed during my undergraduate degree at McGill University (Canada) – quite late, I know! Secretly envious of those who clearly knew “what they wanted to do” early on in life, I started my undergraduate studies confused and unsure to say the least. That slowly changed as I delved into topics such as environmental geography, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem functioning. I was fortunate to have opportunities to complement this theoretical training with hands-on internships involving fieldwork, ecosystem assessments and engaging with local stakeholders around Central America. Immersing myself in new environments continuously challenged my worldview on complex environmental topics, and I embarked on my MESPOM journey eager to continue this intellectual and emotional engagement.

How would you say MESPOM has impacted this journey you have had to reach your current position?  

First, insights learned during MESPOM regarding multi-cultural sensitivity and teamwork, as well as the context-specific realities of complex environmental issues, have been a huge advantage for my personal and professional growth. The mobility options of the program have taught me how to better navigate working in international contexts and within intercultural teams, which has been crucial for any position I’ve had since graduating. When you study across 4 countries with friends coming from more than 20 countries, a lot of what you learn simply cannot be taught via textbooks and PowerPoints, but instead comes from the unspoken subtleties that surround you during your immersion.

Secondly, the variety of courses offered during MESPOM perfectly illustrates the importance of interdisciplinarity when tackling environmental challenges at local, regional and international levels. For me, MESPOM is a unique program that stretched my academic comfort levels by ensuring I think globally, question the boundaries of different fields and dedicate to working across disciplines. This has been a game changer in the way I approach my work and seek out professional opportunities.

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, my MESPOM adventure has been rich in personal connections with my peers. I’m continuously inspired by the amazing work my classmates are doing (whether in the environmental field or not), and that is a kick of motivation and confidence when I’m having a grey day.

What’s the biggest advice you could give to MESPOM students interested in building a career in the field of wildlife conservation?

Wildlife conservation is a particularly challenging field for upcoming professionals. The reasons are increasingly documented and have in fact attracted media attention (try googling “young conservationists struggles”). These include the realities of serial unpaid internships, (very) limited funding overall and the persistence of “casual” and “freelancing” work even for positions that require significant field experience. These challenges are real, and many young conservationists enter the field with passion but unrealistic expectations, and are ultimately “pushed” to other fields. While my first advice to anyone is to consider these realities seriously and early on, that’s not to say there are no opportunities. Networking is key, and taking the time to exchange with peers and meet other professionals can really open doors. Having worked on youth engagement in the field of wildlife conservation for nearly 4 years, I could go on about the challenges and opportunities for youth in conservation. Thankfully there’s a word limit to this blog post, so I’m happy to discuss this further with those interested in this field.

Any future plans? 

The global health crisis we are living through now has given me an opportunity for deeper self-reflection on future dreams and plans. A slower pace of life has allowed me to adjust my priorities, and given me the time to explore what changes that entails. Currently still in this process of discovery, I do envision eventual changes to have a bigger fieldwork component.