Q&A: Salina Kung, student

Why is she in the news:

Salina Kung won the City of Burnaby’s Youth Environment Award for her efforts in the community last month, just weeks before graduating from Alpha Secondary School.

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Salina has been involved in a number of environmental initiatives for the past seven years, including working to preserve the salmon population in city streams, winning an environmental journalism award for youth, introducing food scrap and recycling programs in Burnaby schools, and much more.

She has also taken a leadership role, becoming president of her school’s green team in Grade 10, joining the executive of the Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network in Grade 11 and becoming president of the network in Grade 12. She has organized everything from clothing swaps to community gardens.

Now, Salina is preparing for university in the fall, after receiving a $60,000 Schulich Leader Scholarship. She was one of 50 Canadian students to receive the prestigious award.

Salina plans to attend Simon Fraser University, and over the summer has plans to help the Canadian Youth Sustainabilty Network expand and grow.

Salina spoke with the NOW recently about her volunteer efforts, her passion for the environment, and her plans for the future.

How did you feel after finding out you won the city’s Youth Environmental Award? 

I was elated and was extremely humbled by the fact that my contributions to the community in regards to environmental sustainability have amounted into creating significant and impactful change throughout the Burnaby School District.

What was the first environmental issue that caught your attention? When did you decide to do something about it? 

Growing up, I always had ideas, but I didn’t know what to do with them. At the age of 10, while volunteering to provide the homeless with hot meals, I met an ill, young child with his mother, who slept on the streets beside piles of garbage.

With tears in my eyes, I was determined to change the social and environmental injustice I saw. I started with small steps. I volunteered at university summer camps, recreation centres, international festivals, and with local non-profit organizations.

The first environmental issue that really struck me was the reality that I couldn’t walk more than a few paces without seeing litter all over the ground outside.

With a small group of friends, we hosted a school-wide cleanup supervised by a few parents around our elementary school. 

How did you become involved with environmental initiatives in Grade 5? 

My Grade 5 teacher, Guy Hamilton, is perhaps one of the most influential figures in my life.

His passion for teaching and for fishing led to a salmon-raising project, organized by the Salmonids in the Classroom Program, that engaged our class with feeding and releasing salmon fry. Through this initiative, he taught us environmental stewardship and helped us foster a sense of personal care for the environment.

To this day, he still inspires me to continually strive to improve and build on myself. He taught me that change can be brought about by anyone at any age.

What was it like to win Canada’s Next Green Youth Journalist? How did that change/affect the work you do? 

Winning Canada’s Next Green Journalist was the most exciting event to have happened to me in Grade 9. I founded a salmon-raising project to foster aquatic stewardship with the $500 first place award from Environmental Defence Canada.

The award inspired me to pursue investigative journalism, and ever since, I have interviewed city councillors from different communities and cities, like Kitimat, university professors, and non-profit organization leaders for my online pipeline series regarding the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and the Northern Gateway Enbridge pipeline proposal.

It was also rewarding to be able to take my ideas and turn them into real community change with this grant as I aspired to raise awareness about declining salmon populations and their importance to our Canadian heritage.

What project have you enjoyed the most?

At five years old, I witnessed a woman in tattered clothing smile after finding a scarf among debris. Realizing that useful garments are often thrown away, I aspired to combine my concern for the homeless with my passion for sustainability by organizing Vancouver’s largest clothing swap.

Compelled to bring light to this poorly addressed issue in the city, this event, co-hosted in downtown Vancouver by Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network, stemmed from the idea that sustainability can take on artistic forms, such as fashion. Over 300 guests attended with bags of gently-worn clothing, and were in turn allowed to choose items from clothes brought in by other guests.

Ultimately, over 15,000 garments were exchanged and diverted from landfills.

Additionally, more than 90 large bags of remaining clothes were donated to Big Brothers.

What have you done that you’ve felt had the greatest effect? 

As the president of the Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network, I was involved in the process of acquiring a $5,600 grant to establish school gardens at all eight Burnaby public high schools.

I re-established the school garden at my own high school, and it was heart-warming to see the collaborative culture that it created as students worked together to plant and harvest produce. I also worked with elementary schools at that time, launching a district-wide electronic waste campaign to raise awareness about the ample amounts of electronic waste we produce annually. I brought a food scraps recycling program into all eight Burnaby high schools to divert at least 60 per cent of organic waste from school garbage and ultimately the landfills, with the help of the Be the Change Earth Alliance and the Burnaby School Board.

I believe that my work with my school’s green team, with nearby elementary schools, and with the Burnaby Youth Sustainability Network had the greatest effect. Though, it’s important to keep in mind that every little action can accumulate to create significant change.

Tell us about the scholarship you’re receiving. 

I received the Schulich Leader Scholarship award, which is a $60,000 scholarship awarded to 50 Canadian students out of the thousands of nominations across Canada.

One student from every high school across Canada is nominated. This scholarship is presented to exceptional students who excel in academics and have committed their time to bringing out exemplary change on a local and/or national scale. Recipients must be pursuing science, mathematics, technology or engineering.

What are your plans for college? 

I plan to pursue an honours degree in biomedical physiology at Simon Fraser University, which will tie into my environmental advocacy work on a local and national scale. 

Do you plan to keep advocating for the environment after you graduate? What projects do you have in mind?

I don’t plan to stop pursuing my passion for advocating for the environment through workshops, eco-initiatives, public events, and sustainability conferences after high school.

In fact, I plan to take them to a national level. I will be working with a few close friends to build on the Canadian Youth Sustainability Network, which will create a Canada-wide network to bring more cohesiveness to environmental movements, inspire youth across Canada to engage in sustainable living, expand and enrich the voices of youth, and advance the nation’s step towards a more sustainable future. 

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