SAVE THE FROGS! Volunteer Biraj Shrestha has organized multiple Save The Frogs Day events over the years and has won awards from SAVE THE FROGS! and other organizations to implement amphibian conservation and education programs in the remote Himalayas. Since 2018, Biraj has been living in California pursuing a Masters degree in Coastal Science and Policy at UC Santa Cruz.
In December 2019, SAVE THE FROGS! Journalist Romina Vosoughi interviewed Biraj about his experience in the USA…
Biraj Shrestha hiking the California streams.
Romina: Could you please tell us about your experience as a foreigner in the USA studying? What degree are you working on? What have you learned so far? What is your advice for undergrads wanting to do their graduate studies in this field?
Biraj: I came to the United States as a full-time student in the Fall of 2018. It has been a gratifying experience since I finally fulfilled my long-held ambition of going to a grad school in America. Watching my peers fly out abroad to pursue higher studies, I always wished the same and the USA has an excellent education system. The classes here offer an engaging atmosphere for students to build up their analytical skillset through carefully designed assignments that demand critical thinking and rational judgment. The course content requires students’ active participation in fleshing out the main ideas from the overarching subject in lectures, and seminar classes are very refreshing to me as an international student.
Currently, I am a sophomore grad student for M.S. in Coastal Science and Policy (CSP) program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Our program trains the next generation early graduates to mid-career practitioners to hone leadership skills in solving real-world environmental challenges through solutions-oriented scalable approaches. The journey as an international student in the US, especially to CSP, has been very fulfilling, mainly because the program launched for the first time in 2018. With that said, I am fortunate enough to be a part of this diverse inaugural cohort, with ten students representing seven nations, a melting pot of different cultures. It felt great to familiarize myself with the American culture and from other parts of the world – Belize, Grenada, Peru, India, and China. I have experienced Halloween, Thanksgiving, Black Friday sales, Christmas and New Year, several potlucks, and a 4th of July parade!
Going back to the CSP topic, the program underscores an interdisciplinary approach to learning conservation, economics, social, and ecological aspects from land, freshwater to the open ocean. What we learn theoretically inside the classroom is then applied to mitigate the real-world problems as a capstone project during the second year. The capstone project that each student develops sits at the heart of the CSP program, where we work closely with practitioners and faculty (from the UC Santa Cruz) to devise scalable solutions. My advice for the undergrads is if you have the zeal for environmental conservation and want to learn about professional know-how, then this program is the right fit for you.
Biraj campaigning on behalf of the planet.
Romina: What did UC Santa Cruz offer that made you choose this school over other universities?
Biraj: The fact of attending American universities that costs you a hefty sum of money can fill any prospective student with dread – be it domestic or international. It’s further daunting for international students when there are limited US student loan options with high-interest rates. I am lucky in that I have financial support for two years to attend the world-class public university system, the University of California located in Santa Cruz. UC Santa Cruz has been ranked as the third most institution over the world for research influence in 2017 by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. Aside from that, the location is visually spectacular as the main campus nestled in the redwood forests with deers grazing in the lush green meadows provide a delightful sight. Likewise, coastal science campus situated near the Younger Lagoon Reserve offers you a breathtaking view of the vast open pacific ocean. UC Santa Cruz was also listed as one of the top 25 greenest universities all over the US by The Sierra Club in 2017.
Romina: How is education in the US different from Nepal?
Biraj: I assume very few programs in Nepal are adapting similar learning styles that of the western world. One that empower students through problem-solving assignments, critiquing, peer learning, and role-playing. Otherwise, learning mode is pretty unidirectional, with the students busy taking notes during the lecture and hardly any engagement in constructive discussions. The primary focus is over rote-learning rather than assimilate the nuts and bolts of the overarching principle.
Romina: What are your professional goals after obtaining your degree?
Biraj: I am hoping to find a way to apply my expertise in a position within the realm of freshwater biodiversity. I want to focus on freshwater species that require immediate conservation attention from overexploitation. But conservation in socio-ecological systems is a hard row to hoe, given the strife between social, economic, and ecological dimensions. I believe that today’s problems are far more complex. What solutions worked yesterday might not be effective today, so we need to equip ourselves with the best resources and skillset than what we had in the past. Besides the technical know-how, I feel that it’s imperative to polish our soft skills because at the end of the day, we need to work collaboratively with others. We must put our concerted effort into tackling environmental challenges.
Romina: Are you working on any amphibian conservation projects with the other students in the program?
Biraj: At present, I am working on my capstone project about the co-management of a Mekong River Fish Conservation Zone Network in Laos. The aim is to protect the carp species IUCN-Critically Endangered Probarbus jullieni and IUCN-Endangered Probarbus labeamajor. So literally, not any amphibian conservation endeavors associated with the program, but I have been finding the time to keep my amphibian passion get going. Few wrap-ups with my past frog projects from Nepal, also helping design a portion of the curriculum for grad students in California at SAVE THE FROGS! website, and a bunch of frog outreach materials in 2020 for Nepal are along the way. But last summer, I worked over the American bullfrogs’ management guideline document in Loch Lomond Reservoir, Santa Cruz County. It was during my summer internship with the City of Santa Cruz Water Department Office, California.
Romina: Anything else you would like to add?
Biraj: If your profession and passion mean two different things, try striking the right balance between them. I believe that the experiences we gain in life shouldn’t be reflected as gain and loss because these are all life lessons from which we learn valuable knowledge. As a practitioner, try wearing many hats in this dynamic world.