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May Aung was getting ready to graduate from high school in New York when Cyclone Nargis struck her home country, Myanmar, in 2008. Everyone else in her family lived in Yangon—one of the hardest-hit cities there—and she had no way to contact them. “I just read all this news saying the death toll was on the rise,” Aung recalls. “I was distraught.”
Although her family turned out to be safe, the cyclone killed more than 100,000 people and paralyzed the country’s infrastructure. Aung says the helplessness she felt in its wake became a motivating force. “In the future,” she says, “I never want to be on the sidelines just reading [about Myanmar]. I want to have a say in what happens.”
Now 24, Aung has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Franklin & Marshall College, and is knee deep in policy work for the Myanmar Environmental Governance Program at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
The project was launched in 2012 to help the country’s newly restructured government craft policies that will protect its rich natural resources. That’s no small task, says Aung. “Myanmar is at a crossroads, and there’s a lot of pressure for economic development.” Her own responsibilities include facilitating workshops for policymakers, strengthening government partnerships with civil society groups, and making legal recommendations to various ministry officials.
Because her father works for Myanmar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Aung says the mechanics of policymaking are familiar territory for her. So are the perspectives of people in developing countries: in addition to Myanmar, Aung has lived in South Africa and Madagascar. “Many people [in the global South] have a deep understanding of the environment,” she says, “but feel they don’t have the tools to make their voices heard.”
As one of the first Russell E. Train Education for Nature fellows from Myanmar, Aung is honing her own policy toolkit through a master’s in environmental law and policy, which she began this fall at Vermont Law School.
She’s excited about the possibilities ahead: “Myanmar officials are eager to learn and put the country on the path to green growth,” she says. “There is a lot of hope there right now.”