"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step"
~ Lao Tzu
The Women as Global Leaders Conference 2012 was the first academic conference I had ever been to, in addition to being my first time in the Middle East. The conference was held at Zayed University and all the participants at this conference were female. Having the opportunity to meet so many women who are working for change was very eye opening to me as I realized what I am capable of.
The campus at Zayed university was transformed into a welcoming location where women from all around the world were able to experience a place where strong women could speak their mind.
The venue its self spoke a lot about the current culture of the UAE: new, flashy, and often times over the top. Yet it was the space its self that allowed for the treasured interaction between the participants. Having such a large building with three floors filled with spaces for people to stop and talk I found my self much more comfortable approaching and starting conversation in this environment then I did at the night time reception before the kick off of the conference.
I'll never forget walking up the steps to the conference on that first day, the excitement was electrifying. Once there we were given our bags that included the programs as well as water bottle to go with the theme of creating a sustainable future. Before arriving at the conference I thought the only way to talk about sustainability was to talk about environmentalism and what can be done to save the planet. Yet once inside my first meeting of the Creating a Sustainable Future certificate program, sustainability became so much more. It started to include economical, cultural, and societal elements as well. Suddenly I felt that this conference was so out of my field of study at all.
The certificate program was explained as an opportunity to gain applied knowledge in the field of sustainability, we would be able to select whichever field we would prefer and come up with our own projects as we simultaneously received and gave input to other participants. Through this process we would come up with an action plan that we would be able to use to truly attempt our projects in our home countries. In order to receive the certificate in the end we needed to commit to a six hour commitment broken over our three days at the conference. Although I was weary at first and can openly say that when I first started I did not think I had any ideas, I was able to come up with numerous ideas during my time at the conference.
Each day we were given homework that allowed all of us to think and reflect about what we did that day, in addition we had to fill in our Sustainability in Action Plans. These became our to keep after the conference and consisted of the plan for us to narrow down what idea we wanted to run with as well as how to make this idea a reality.
At the end of my first sustainability in action program meeting I was weary of coming back for the second day. I liked the idea of completing a certificate program while at the conference, however at the same time I was worried that I did not have any ideas. However I was assured that I did not need to bring in ideas, I could create them there. I took a chance and went back that second day, which I must say has been one of the best decisions I ever made.
The second day of the Sustainability in Action program opened my eyes to cultures both my own and others in a way that has never happened to me before. American society tends to have a very much us vs. them attitude however through this program I was able to see the similarities I never thought to look for. For example, as we had to go through the different types of Sustainability I came up with an idea where funding would be given to a program that pair elderly people with young children who's parents who cannot afford child care, this would help to preserve their culture as the older generation can pass on the history to the younger generation as well as help financially; the "grandparent" would be compensated and the "grandchild's" parents would not have to pay for child care. The funds would come from a grant to help preserve cultural identity. As I came up with this idea to be used in small scale neighborhoods where local culture is being replaced by main stream ideals; another participant from Omar loved the idea and thought it would work wonderfully in her home country. Knowing nothing about Omar other than its location I was able to come up with an idea that could work around the world. The ability to collaborate with so many people from so many different cultures at once is an experience I will keep with me for the rest of my life.
However we were developing many ideas and with every thought we had we were supposed to put a post it with it written on it on the idea board. This way if we chose not to use it someone else could, or people could merge ideas in order to create the best possible. By half way through the third day it was time to finish our action plans and present our ideas. As my experiences with the women in this room forced me to question stereotypes I had learned over the years I decided to focus on a project that would also help to breakdown stereotypes of other cultures. The idea I ended up pitching to a group of participants as well as the program directors was an idea for a website that would connect College and University students whose countries have tension and/or conflict however who on a personal level have many of the same interests. The goal of this program would be to help alleviate tension between countries by promoting better understanding between younger generations. I learned valuable skills by having to think on my feet coming up with different ideas and figuring out how to best describe it with only twenty minutes to prepare for my proposal.
At the conclusion of the program we were able to exchange contact information and have since created groups of facebook in order to continue to stay in contact with other participants. Without this program I would have never met many of the women I am now in contact with. Particularly the friends I made with Emirati students studying at Zayed University.
In addition to my participation at the Sustainability in Action Certificate program I was also able to utilize an opportunity to tour Masdar City through the Masdar Institute. Part of the conference venue included an exhibition with booths of local businesses one of whom belonged to Masdar Institute.
The Masdar Institute is the driving force behind Masdar City which is the first sustainable city in the world let alone the Middle East. Knowing little about environmentalism other than conserving energy and recycling the opportunity to learn about such a feat was greatly welcomed. We learned that the future Masdar City will be much larger than what we saw, and will be completed in 2025. The beginning of our tour included a scale model of what the city will look like when it is completed. Currently the only fully functional organization in Masdar City is Masdar Institute, a graduate school that awards masters level and doctorate level degrees in the field of environmental sustainability. However what is so interesting about this institution is that due to its enormous endowment, there is no tuition to go there, instead they pay for everything including room, board, and a living stipend. Although not yet accredited Masdar Institute is affiliated with MIT and many American students have studied their through MIT.
During our tour of the grounds we were able to use cars that were operated by computers. Instead of being driven by a person you simply got into the vehicles and selected the play button, the car automatically took us to the next stop on the tour. Getting a chance to use this new technology first hand really added to my experience in terms of sustainability. I've never used a vehical that was run by electricity and magnets before. These cars were charged when they were parked in their booths and then ran using electricity and magnets along a magnetic strip in the road.
the actual science behind Masdar Institute was explained to us in more detail during a session where we learned how architecture and water purification play an important role in keeping Masdar Institute running. Although the scientific explanations were in depth and more complicated then my learning base in science allowed, it was a valuable experience to see that this is possible. After all if it is possible in the desert of the UAE it must be possible in the more temperate climates of the North East US.
Through the walking portion of the tour we were able to learn how Masdar Institute has been able to mimic the natural structures of the desert in their buildings in order to create cooler buildings. By mimicking the sand dunes they can create cool bedrooms because shadows are constantly cast upon the walls. The institute has also come up with innovate ways to deal with the excessive heat that plagues the UAE during the summer. Utilizing wind tunnels and fine water mist hot air can be tunneled down creating a cool spot at the base of the wind tunnel.
Ultimately the Women as Global Leaders Conference 2012 has challenged my way of thinking and brought me to a level that I might not have achieved without this experience. I've learned more about cultural identity and societal sustainability in this conference than I have in any of my courses. I learned of the ways to help conserve the world we live in despite my degree being far from a physical science. The lessons and memories I have learned at this conference have dramatically altered what I think is possible and I will take these skills with me for life.