A life dedicated to protecting the environment
Apa khabar, my name is Sabrina Qistina and I am 17 years old. Growing up in Malaysia, it is no surprise for any of us to be so deeply connected with nature, considering that we are surrounded by green forests, silky blue waters, and miles after miles of wildlife wherever we go. Since I was a kid, on the weekends, my father and I would go fishing by the lake during the day and hike through forest trails during the night. However, when my father passed away two years ago, after losing a hard-fought battle to a heart disease, I was struck with the realization that not all things last forever.
I started thinking about what I own and what will really live on after me and I have come to the realization that I can only claim little pieces of memories I have made with my father in my head and in my heart. From that moment on, I was more determined than ever to fight for the preservation and protection of the environment, so that everyone can claim their piece too.
During my gap year this spring, I was one of the 11 Malaysian alumni to fly to Borneo to work with Raleigh International, an international organization that gathers youth from all around the world to work relentlessly towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), providing access to safe water and sanitation, protecting vulnerable environments and building resilient communities in Borneo, a giant island in Southeast Asia.
For three weeks, I stayed in a rural village where basic needs, especially water sanitation and hygiene, were heavily lacking. The earthquake that struck the island back in 2015 left a long and strong impact on the village up until today. Alongside my two friends from Belgium and England, we worked together on a risk assessment of the dams and pipes that supply water to the whole village, and made use of our knowledge from our hometowns to solve the environmental conflicts and issues that the village was facing.
Within those three weeks, we established an underground network of pipes from three mountainous sources, directly connected to households and to a tank that stores water during dry seasons. Besides installing a gravity-fed water system and building a “tandas” (toilet) for the village, we also implemented clean water and sanitation through improving access to water and sanitation facilities, providing activities and advocacy sessions within the community to raise awareness about the risks of drinking unsafe water such as germs and diarrhea.
While living with this community and learning about how their customs and climate are affected by the lack of water, we have all begun to reconsider the importance we place on clean water back at home. I also trekked through Borneo’s rainforest for the following 17 days, to learn how to survive off my rucksack every day and to be completely submerged in nature. This experience exposed me to some of the most incredible beauties this planet has to offer and to the importance of its protection. I saw and experienced climate change happening for two months or so, and that was enough to keep me fighting for this planet we call home.
As a high school student, I worked to bridge differences between diverse communities. Inspired by Humans of New York, I co-founded a student body initiative called “Humans of Nobel” that tells the story of students and teachers simply through a picture and a caption. Seeing my high school as a big, complex puzzle where everything is connected, I started connecting the pieces through Humans of Nobel, that slowly gained gained recognition in and out of the school. I solidified my leadership skills by creating spaces and platforms for open dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
When I was awarded with the highest leadership honor of being “head girl” of the school, especially when it is so uncommon for female students to be awarded in high schools around Asia, I had the opportunity to organize a youth-led charity project at a kitchen that provides food to people from orphanages, retirement homes, and lower-income neighborhoods, to celebrate the Chinese New Year together: a significant Chinese festival celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar.
Education, however, has always been my passion throughout my life. I believe that education is the driving force to resolve issues of poverty, lack of economic opportunities and environmental degradation. I started my journey through education in 2013 by co-founding an independent school-wide newspaper, the “Nobel Nasi Lemak”, when my friends and I realized that there was a complete lack of journalistic publications written exclusively for teens by teens in the school. In 2016, the Nobel Nasi Lemak gained national recognition and was later documented on a youth channel on national television, inspiring young Malaysians to push forward the same idea in their schools.
My love of writing has carried on for years, until I was selected, in 2016, to be a national teen journalist of the “Starstruck! Young Writers Programme”. Mixing popular culture with social justice and politics, the program amplifies the voices of teenagers by publishing articles, short stories and interviews, regardless of gender, race, and sexual orientation. Being read in all 13 states of the country, Starstruck! is also the first social justice platform that directly caters to teenagers all over the nation, and I was fortunate enough to be able to address many significant issues that are often overlooked in Malaysia.
Coming from a country where having the desire to attend college after high school is not the usual norm, I can speak on behalf of every child in Malaysia and say that every academic achievement and scholastic tribute comes with the product of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears. The first time I knew I wanted to be an advocate for quality education was when I taught English to a group of indigenous children in Borneo and saw their faces light up with excitement when they learned a new word.
In August, I will be studying under the International Baccalaureate Program at the Mahindra United World College of India, one of the 17 United World College schools and colleges that brings together young people from all parts of the world to join hands and use education as a force to engage in the possibility of social change. Due to cultural and financial solidities, my parents never had the chance to receive higher education, so to be the first person in my family to attend college is an opportunity I will forever be grateful for.