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Sustainability grad brings international perspective

Maryam Abdul Rashid outside of Wrigley Hall, home of the School of Sustainability at ASU.

April 16, 2019

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2019 commencement.

Maryam Abdul Rashid took a big risk enrolling in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University. Coming from Malaysia, she said sustainability was a foreign concept and people back home questioned what her future might be. But she took the leap anyway — with a big payoff.

"I forever feel blessed to have been given the chance to travel 9,021 miles just to come to school here," Rashid said, adding that her favorite part of being an ASU student is the diversity she is able to experience at a school that values different people and their cultures.

This May, Rashid is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in sustainability, and she is due to return to ASU for one more year through ASU’s 4+1 accelerated Master of Sustainability Solutions program. Rashid has made the most of her ASU experience by taking on many roles, including: School of Sustainability ambassador, president of the Honor Society for Sustainability, ASU Global Guide mentor, director of service for Alpha Kappa Psi, community assistant in the Hassayampa dorms and intern with Think City in Malaysia.

Rashid became involved with many of these positions because she wanted to pay it forward. When she was a freshman, she said older ASU students helped her adjust to life in the United States when she was scared and feeling alone during her first time living abroad. Ever since then, she wanted to help other new students transition to college life.

“No matter who you are or where you come from, I feel like ASU gives a 1,001 opportunities to explore and grow as a person — and that's a huge reason I love studying at ASU,” Rashid said.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I guess I have always wanted to study sustainability ever since high school but at that time, I did not know what sustainability meant. I had always been very active in multiple environmental efforts back home, but something did not really fit. When it was time to choose my major and what country I would like to study abroad in, my options were very limited as they were mostly involved in environmental science. However, environmental science was not something I wanted to major in as I was aware that science and math were not my strongest subjects.

When looking for different universities in the (United) States, I discovered that ASU offered a sustainability major in the School of Sustainability. At that point, I did not really understand what sustainability meant but the programs offered sounded like they were more suited to my interests compared to schools that offered environmental science, as I like learning about people and their respective cultures. Even though I took a big risk to study sustainability — as many people back home had questions on what my future would be like at that point in time, since the idea of sustainability was something very foreign and new — coming here to ASU and the School of Sustainability was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I finally found a major that I was truly passionate about while being surrounded by amazing professors and peers that made Arizona feel like a second home to me. The School of Sustainability has given me opportunities beyond my wildest dreams, as it has given me the opportunity to study abroad in Ecuador, build connections with peers and companies both in and outside the States and expand my knowledge on sustainability.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: One of the things I have learned from my sustainability classes is just how powerful storytelling can actually be when enacting change. I love how sustainability can take on any shape and form while pushing us to seek different approaches to solve problems. In some classes, we were instructed to write scripts and narratives to help people understand each other’s perspective so that we can come together and decide on the best way to approach the designated problem. Even though this was something that I was not expecting to learn from my sustainability classes, I am glad I was given the opportunity to explore more creative mediums especially when trying to bridge the gap between different stakeholders who come from different backgrounds.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: One of my favorite classes that I have taken is SOS 510: Perspectives on Sustainability with Professor John “Marty” Anderies. Marty really challenged us to think beyond the typical sustainability problems that we have been exposed to in our undergraduate career and to think about underlying key sustainability problems such as inequality, status consciousness, imagined orders, culture and complexities. Before taking his class I had never really thought about the connection between status consciousness and sustainability but the more I thought about it, the more relevant it became.

Growing up in a culture that valued status consciousness through one's title, wealth and level of education, it really helped me become more aware when trying to create sustainability solutions in those different cultural contexts. It also became the basis of how I started thinking of solutions — especially ones that relate to the problems we have back at home.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice I can give is not to be afraid to take risks due to the fear of failure and to never give up. Coming from across the world to the United States was one of the biggest risks that I have ever taken. It was hard to leave my comfort zone by leaving my family and friends to pursue my passion and hopefully make a positive impact in the world no matter how small. Even though I knew that I could possibly come home with a degree that may not be in high demand and be faced with criticism from others, I still went out and took the risk. I wasn’t afraid to take the leap in hopes for a brighter future for all. If you never take the leap, you may never know what you are fully capable of. So go ahead and take that risk. Never let the fear of failure hold you back. I believe in you and so should you!

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus to reflect on life and de-stress would have to be "A" Mountain. I love to climb up to the peak and watch the sunset while I reflect on the things I have done and who I want to become in the future. As I look out into the horizon, I take a deep breath and feel at peace. All the stress from school, work and life just washes away in that one second and I become ready to face the world.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: After finishing my internship with Think City, I discovered my love for designing cities in a more sustainable and people-centric way. In the future, a majority of the population will be living in cities. Therefore, I believe it is important for us to already be in the mindset of making improvements to the current system we have by making changes to the current beliefs, assumptions, rules, capacities and the type of resources we need — instead of finding solutions on how to adapt to these changes later in the future.

I hope to become a representative of the people and help design cities within their respective cultural context and the type of climate they are situated in. People are a huge part of what makes a city what it is, which is why I feel like my future career in sustainability will be a mixture of working with different types of people and the cities they live in.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would like to build sustainable cities and communities while minimizing the effects of inequality that currently exist in that particular city. One of the projects I am looking into serves to reduce one’s vulnerability to heat and the lack of access to fresh produce in Tempe by implementing an urban food forest. Through solutions like this, I believe that those who are faced with vulnerable situations can have more access to resources in order to meet their daily needs and make a living for themselves … hopefully reducing the inequality that exists within the respective area.

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