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YES Abroad Alumna Wins UNA-USA Essay Contest

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Congratulations to Alaine Johnson (YES Abroad 2009-2010, Thailand) for winning the UNA-USA Essay Contest! Alaine is a YES Abroad alumna who was just 15 years old when she went to Thailand in 2009. Since returning from her YES Abroad experience, Alaine has furthered the goals of the program by serving to help select future classes of YES Abroad students, to prepare future YES Abroad students to go to Thailand, and by welcoming incoming YES students by helping to prepare them for their program in the U.S.

Following YES Abroad, Alaine studied in Eswatini as a Davis Scholar at United World College, and was a fellow with Second Cup Pakistan, Young Sustainable Impact, and Sentient Media. Alaine graduated from Yale-NUS College in Singapore, as the second founding class in 2018. Alaine now works with Bettr Barista in Singapore, following her passions for environmentalism and the global coffee industry. “Each and every decision I’ve made on this unorthodox path...was catalyzed by my YES Abroad year, which cultivated a deep love for intercultural education and communication.”

Alaine writes for media outlets about topics related to the environment, conservation, and animal rights. Her research on the topic of organic agriculture certification is published in the Journal of Rural Studies and her film on Philippine coffee was selected for the Voices of Nature Environmental Film Festival in 2019. Her ambitions include building a zero waste supply chain of coffee and restoring biodiversity in the ASEAN region.

Read her phenomenal award-winning essay below, originally published on the UNA-USA website

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The Uncountable Decisions by Alaine Johnson

The towering white sacks of rice, maize, and beans felt like a labyrinth slowly closing in on us. It wasn’t even midday yet, and the lowland Swazi heat was steaming up the warehouse. I looked up at the World Food Programme sacks—stacked according to a specific design for stability—and started counting again.

It was my first internship experience. My stomach grumbled, and my mind began wandering towards the sandwich I packed for lunch, left behind in the makeshift trailer office. I looked over at my friend and fellow intern, Bantu. Did we miscount the height? Our task was to take stock of the thousands of food sacks of the UN World Food Programme’s multiple warehouses in central Eswatini, and there was a specific algorithm to follow when counting. As part of the logistics team, we accompanied field officers to deliver food to Neighborhood Care Points (NCP). We witnessed the challenges that international aid organizations face in creating truly sustainable development. At one NCP, there was a newly constructed classroom and community shelter, but no teacher or equipment inside. At another school where we delivered food, the previous sack of rice had been spoilt with weevils because they lacked proper storage facilities. I began drawing together the threads of development work. Even the largest organizations like the UN can only achieve their goals through partnerships and collaborations.

It was during this same time that I discovered the Millennium Development Goals as part of my IB Geography class and read The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs’ analogy of diagnosing each country’s poverty and development the way a doctor diagnoses a patient stuck with me as I started seeing applications of the undeniably interlaced MDGs, and later SDGs, in the communities around me. These sets of goals provided a framework for me to understand how universal goals are met with contextual nuance in places like Guatemala, Eswatini or India where I lived as an adolescent.

Throughout university, the bright boxes of the SDGs became a constant theme in the environmental and social issues I was tackling in my degree. I memorized them like the periodic table, interned with a social enterprise in Thailand working towards gender equality, and declared a major in environmental studies.

By the time I graduated, the UN’s SDGs had defined my next chapter—a global innovation program called Young Sustainable Impact (YSI). After a lengthy application process to select 21 talented individuals teamed up in groups of threes according to diverse backgrounds and skill sets, we started on a 4-month innovation program to address issues working towards the SDGs. The UN goals were guiding lights for our innovation process. Does this contribute towards climate action (13)? How is this building systems of responsible consumption (12) – and most of all: what partnerships (17) will we need for this to work?

After months of working together virtually, I met my two teammates from India and Pakistan in Norway to incubate a digital waste management start up. Little did I know that the confluence of working together towards the UN SDGs would carry me directly into the career I have now.Less than a year after our meeting in Norway, my Pakistani teammate launched a fellowship program with a multinational coffee company, and they wanted me to come to Pakistan for it. I  completed my environmental studies degree with a capstone in coffee production, spending year after year visiting coffee farms in the Philippines working towards a specialization in rural development in Southeast Asia. For a month, I worked with the international coffee chain throughout Pakistan to develop a narrative around coffee in a chai-drinking country. I then returned to Singapore to work in a social enterprise using coffee as a vocational skill to reduce inequalities and provide decent work and economic independence to marginalized women and youth-at-risk.

 I could never have predicted how those unmistakable colored tiles of goals would influence the decisions I made. I was led to people who opened up new countries to me, giving me new insights on my career.

I’ve seen and experienced first-hand the breadth and width of civil society, government, NGOs, and companies that must come on board towards the goals. Insights and examples from the UN have impacted my life at every juncture. As 2020 unfolds precariously, I’m entrenched in shedding light on the climate crisis, finding the resilience to adapt, and continuing on to do development work for those most affected during this downturn.