This post has been submitted by Zunaira Malik, 27, from Luton, England. Zunaira recently graduated with an MSc Land and Ecological Restoration from the Eden Project University Centre. Taking an unconventional route to her Master’s degree, Zunaira joined the degree with a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, without having done an undergraduate degree and after having developed her interest and skills through work and voluntary experiences in the environmental sector.

Read on for more about Zunaira’s story and her experiences of working and studying in conservation and the environmental sector.

The journey begins

My journey into the environmental sector started as a young person without a bachelor’s degree. My choice not to attend university after my sixth-form college studies was primarily one of activism and disdain for what the financial situation of the education system had become. I remember thinking that geography would be too broad a degree to study when I wasn’t quite sure what career I was pursuing. I had always been interested in the relationship between the natural environment and humans, so I knew it was either geography or environmental studies I would choose in higher education but I was unsure exactly which course. 

Nevertheless, after sixth-form college, I landed in the grown-up world where I worked various roles in customer service and hospitality. Alongside it all, I volunteered my time in fundraising activities with international development charities such as Islamic Relief, to feel I was contributing something meaningful. Fundraising, however, was not my prime focus. I was thinking about campaigning activities and engagement to raise awareness of the root issues of poverty, all of which traced back to natural resources, the very ones which were under threat in a changing climate.

Climate campaigns

Here I fell into the world of climate campaigning. I began to attend civil society actions at COP21 and COP22, as a young campaigner. This was where my primary passions lay. After years of studying Geography and wanting to learn about global issues and solutions, I somehow was able to see it in action at the UN climate negotiations. On my return from the COP21 activities in Paris, I voluntarily led workshops, took part in panel discussions and used local radio stations as platforms to speak about environmental issues and why they were relatable to community audiences. Sometimes if I was lucky there was a payment offered and so this was my first exposure to paid passion work.

Finding work in the sector

To find more consistent work (at this point any work!) in the environmental sector, I pursued any entry-level positions that spoke to me. After a few years, my work experience included working for National Trust, Sustrans and Keep Britain Tidy.

The people-focused skills I developed through engagement with people of different ages and backgrounds led me to my first mid-level position, as a Programme Coordinator at Action for Conservation. In this role, I organised, led and supported conservation-based workshops focusing on engaging young people and their connection to the natural world.

This is where I really built my knowledge of ecology, practical surveying and nature connection. I remember stating in my interview ‘I don’t see myself as a conservationist’ but by the end of the four and a half years of working for Action for Conservation, and with a Programme Manager role under my belt, I was definitely a conservationist with my passion growing every day! I truly felt that the restoration of nature and ecology in the face of climate change was the solution to the climate crisis and decided that this was where I wanted to spend more of my energy learning. So much so, that I left my job at Action for Conservation to pursue a master’s degree in this area. Cue the next chapter of my life…

Studying for a master’s degree

I have just completed my MSc in Land and Ecological Restoration at the Eden Project University Centre in Cornwall. My last year has consisted of developing my ecological knowledge, scientific research and assignment writing along with learning the art of referencing!

The course had a strong applied research focus and included a field trip visit to Puerto Rico. There, we learned about the island’s restoration work, organised by Vida Marina and the University of Aguadilla, in a tropical island context, vulnerable to hurricanes. It was an incredible experience visiting a country with such different vulnerabilities to ours and where working with nature meant just as much about people as it did about species. The restoration of land on the island had strong social justice threads embedded at the heart of the work.

As it was my first degree, my volunteering and work experiences were a huge factor in my acceptance onto the course. Also, as someone with no scientific background in higher education, it’s been a huge learning experience. Nonetheless, it is one which I have thoroughly enjoyed!

Going into the course I vaguely remember wanting to know ‘Where exactly do we start when it comes to restoring damaged land?’. By the end of the course, I found myself writing a feasibility study for the reintroduction of white-clawed crayfish in my dissertation. As part of this, I collected and analysed river samples and carried out kick-sampling surveys mostly on my own! What a journey!

So what’s next?

My journey continues, and I am currently working various temporary roles whilst freelancing as a consultant in the sector. The Master’s degree has opened up a pathway and a new desire for me to be involved in scientific research so I am also looking at PhD opportunities and work in the restoration field.

What I love about this sector is that there are so many opportunities to be constantly learning and developing your knowledge. We will never know everything about the planet and nature and we are constantly on a quest to understand our natural world a little more, especially on a rapidly changing planet. As someone who is curious and often excited about the different pathways in the sector which make themselves known, I feel I have found a passion area for life.

It is worth remembering that education can be pursued at any age in many different formats. The pathways into jobs for nature are numerous and non-exhaustive! I hope my journey into working for nature will encourage everyone who is even a little keen to pursue their own journey and pave their own way (whatever that may be!) into the sector.

Zunaira Malik

Further links:

    • Check out Climate Reframe, described as ‘Your guide to some of the best black, brown, asian, people of colour and UK based indigenous peoples from global south who are climate experts, campaigners and advocates living and working in the UK’, which Zunaira was included in.

    • Listen to a radio show clip of Zunaira and other guests talking with Mobeen Azhar on BBC Asian Network discussing ‘Why Should We Care About the Environment?‘, including what you can do to help the environment, and inspiration on engaging with nature from a faith perspective.
    • Zunaira was a judge on the 2020 Women’s Hour Power List, a list of 30 women whose work is making a difference to the sustainability of our planet. This video gives background on the 2020 Women’s Hour Power List and you can find the final list here.

Thank you Zunaira for sharing your story and encouragement — we wish you all the best on your journey!

Are you a student, trainee or someone actively taking steps to get into the environmental sector? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch if you’d like to share your story and experiences about getting into a green job for nature.

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