Melissa Lee, Founder & CEO Of The GREEN Program, Is Redefining Experiential Education For Students Everywhere

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College is not a one-size-fits all experience. While it's true that higher education offers opportunities to gain both education and hands-on, real-world experience through semesters abroad and internships, those opportunities aren't accessible for every student. Entrepreneur Melissa Lee, 27, recognized this gap, and co-founded The GREEN Program (TGP) when she was just a 19-year-old student at Rutgers University's New Brunswick campus.

"The GREEN Program is ​the first of its kind, specifically focusing on experiential education and workforce development for young leaders in sustainable development," Lee tells Bustle. "Created for students, by students, ​we entered the industry with fresh perspective and introduced a new model for education abroad — driven by a desire to provide purposeful, hands-on industry exposure at a fraction of the time and cost."​

While the classroom prepares students academically, being able to apply what you've learned in the real world before you enter the workforce is key to long-term success. Lee realized that opportunities like studying abroad were out of reach for working students, students with financial limitations, or those who simply could not spend an entire semester away. Additionally, millennials have inherited an environmental crisis of epic proportions, which also concerned Lee. By creating TGP, Lee, a first-generation Chinese-American who grew up in Queens, N.Y., set out to solve two problems: helping students find easier access to hands-on experiential education, while also helping the environment.

"We are also unique because we​ work alongside ​the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals​ and focus our programs on our world's most pressing issues," she says.

Melissa Lee/The GREEN Program

While Lee says she never set out to be an entrepreneur, she found herself most drawn to experiences that employed her creative skills, and allowed her to think outside the box. It's clear that she's a natural-born leader who doesn't wait for others to solve problems for her. When she didn't feel like her university was offering everything she needed to succeed, she created TGP to bridge that gap.

"I just fell in love with the idea of being able to create potential in people and business, while taking notice to the fact that there is beauty within an indeterminate future down the path of entrepreneurship," she says.

Traditionally, gaining experience outside of the classroom meant committing to either an entire semester abroad, or an internship. For students who are working their way through college, or who have other responsibilities, those options aren't always realistic.

"While the standard study abroad experience can cost an average of nearly $30,000 for [one] semester, we know that the alarming rate at which higher education’s costs are rising are a major cause for concern," Lee says. "The GREEN Program’s breakthrough educational model allows students to have an international-education experience for 85 percent less cost, and a fraction of the time."

The GREEN Program, now based in Philadelphia, helps students maximize their winter, spring, and summer breaks in order to allow them to get in a fulfilling educational abroad experience in 10 days or less.

"Our short-term, accredited, career-focused approach creates truly transformative experiences for students around the world — unlocking doors to governmental, public, and private facility access, exclusive tours, and unique bucket-list experiences," Lee says.​ "In fact, 99 percent of GREEN alumni say that TGP has refined their purpose professionally, personally, or academically.​"

As committed partners to the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals, TGP exposes students to the heart and guts of these sustainability challenges and initiatives around the world, which affect every person on the planet whether or not they pursue a career that focuses on sustainability.

The GREEN Program is open to students of all majors, because Lee says, "It's critical that all fields are represented in these conversations. Sometimes our higher education industry gets too caught up in prerequisites which unfortunately is creating more barriers to quality sustainability education for all."

"We are proud to have such a diverse representation of other disciplines — art, communication, language, gender studies, psychology, music, criminal justice, etc.," she says.

The GREEN Program works with students, their universities, and host universities to ensure that students get academic credit for their TGP experience. However, Lee says that plenty of students who don't need credit still do the program to gain valuable experience they can put on the résumés.

Melissa Lee/The GREEN Program

Traveling, and experiencing cultures and environments different from your own can give you an education you can't get anywhere else. It can also foster an innate curiosity and admiration for the natural world, which is what happened to Lee.

"​As a kid, I always had a love and concern for animals, our ocean, and the environment. I think most humans are innately prone to this type of thinking for our world," she says. "It just didn't grow out of me as I grew up but that's what travel does to you."

"Having the privilege to grow up traveling around the world helped me appreciate our world's natural landscapes and beauty," she says. "When you see the beauty in nature, you want to protect it."

And, because she knows that not everyone has access to those experiences, Lee decided to find a way to make experiential travel a reality for more students. "Starting TGP at a younger age, and developing programs in the best places in the world that are progressing sustainable development, also got me involved in discussions and meetings with some of our world's climate leaders and researchers very quickly," she explains. "I am constantly learning everyday from our partners, team, and students around the world."

Going forward, Lee is working toward increasing educational and international access through a strongly supported scholarship fund catered to disadvantaged students. She also envisions creating a global curricula where students can take various TGP courses around the world and truly use the world as their classroom. The cumulative experience will be an equivalent to a major and minor degree program in sustainable development.

"The second part to this is building our workforce development platform that launched this year," Lee says. "This is where we make systemic change by linking our alumni talent to sustainably-focused companies and organizations where they can make positive change."

Melissa Lee/The GREEN Program

One of the best things about TGP is its commitment to keeping alumni involved after their experience is over, and 60 percent of the program's work is geared toward alumni post-travel experiences. In total, 91 percent of TGP alumni stay connected with the program's global alumni community for mentorship, career development, industry news, travel, and more. From a long-term impact perspective, 95 percent of alumni stay involved in local sustainability efforts after their experience.

"We are heavily invested in our alumni’s long-term future and success — inclusive of workforce development, alumni reunions and local action initiatives," Lee says. "With a fast-paced, ever-changing job market, our team understands hiring challenges. We are here to make it efficient and rewarding for our hiring partners and alumni talent."

And, aside from being a life-changing, accessible experience, many alumni have credited TGP with helping them launch careers at organizations like General Electric, SpaceX, Tesla, Boeing, NASA, Lockheed Martin, The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and more.

"The GREEN Program partners with a consortium of organizations that leverage the GREEN Advantage hiring platform to meet their talent recruitment goals, while investing in the GREEN scholarship fund. For every alumni that is hired, a disadvantaged student is given a scholarship to gain access to an education in sustainability," Lee says. "Our goal is to help break down key barriers to education abroad and increase diversity in the workforce. We — along with our fiscal sponsors, 501c3 non-profit partners, hiring partners and donors — believe in investing in conscious travel and education to provide a global support network for our next generation to achieve impactful career goals."

Lee, who is not even 30 years old, exemplifies the power of positive change. By asking herself how she could combine education and sustainability, this millennial change agent has successfully disrupted both the education and travel industries for the better. The GREEN Program invests more than $1 million each year in the local economies of its host countries. And, by using the world as a classroom, TGP provides meaning and purpose to university students who are motivated by the idea that they can create a more sustainable future.

Learn more about Bustle's 2017 Upstart Awards here.