A new academic year started last month. Many young Hong Kong people who recently graduated from secondary school have just started their college education.
Some will be studying traditionally popular and prestigious professional subjects such as medicine or law.
Many will be taking business-related degrees in finance or accounting. Others will be doing engineering or teacher training.
A few will keep their options open and do pure sciences.
And then there are those who are doing something quite different.
Among the thousands of students beginning new courses of study are around 20 who have enrolled in a brand new honors degree program at the Technical and Higher Education Institute — bachelor of arts in horticulture and landscape management.
It is a four-year program designed to prepare students for a range of roles concerning the management of green space — from maintenance of parks and gardens to the development and conservation of landscapes and the environment.
That requires training in such disciplines as horticulture and arboriculture management, landscape construction and maintenance and the sciences of plants, landscapes and the environment.
This is a growing profession and it is increasingly recognized.
Graduates of this program will be eligible for membership of associations such as the UK Chartered Institute of Horticulture, the Hong Kong Institute of Landscape Architects and the US International Society of Arboriculture.
What sort of careers will these graduates have?
If you follow the news in Hong Kong, you will know the problems the city keeps having with trees.
You will also know how much the community values its urban and country parks, and the demands and expectations of a cleaner, greener and more spacious living environment.
These students will one day play a key role in helping Hong Kong improve its quality of life — one of its most critical future challenges in remaining competitive as a business center and a vibrant community.
They are not alone in following non-traditional (in Hong Kong) academic subjects that could lead to newly emerging career opportunities.
For several years, I served as the chairman of the council of Lingnan University, which Forbes magazine recently named one of the top 10 liberal arts colleges in Asia.
During that time, I saw how Hong Kong as a society — and certainly some parents — do not always encourage students to do non-professional or non-vocational courses.
Disciplines at Lingnan include subjects such as philosophy, history, cultural studies and visual studies.
These are taught in small classes on a campus where the students live as a community.
They take part in various off-campus activities and international exchange programs.
A university like this is not training students for a specific profession.
But it aims to nurture various qualities such as communication skills, respect for others, acceptance of different views, an understanding of accountability for what you say and do, an understanding of the idea of shared responsibilities and an understanding of the responsibilities that come with leadership and influence.
These qualities are essential to a pluralistic and innovative environment — in our social life, in the workplace or in the civic and political world of the community and nation and beyond.
And these qualities can only be acquired by doing and seeing and living. You cannot learn them, on your own, from a textbook.
At a recent Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce event, David Oxtoby, president of my alma mater Pomona College in California, made an interesting point.
He said educators today are preparing young people to work in jobs and industries that may no longer exist in another 10 or 15 years.
As with the students doing horticulture and landscape management, many Lingnan graduates will be going into cutting-edge fields essential for Hong Kong’s future success.
We hear a lot about the need to develop creative industries — it is people who can think out of the box who will make it happen.
For example, arts administration is a niche area but it is vital to Hong Kong’s future in terms of quality of life and as a growing regional and global cultural hub.
The museums and performance centers in West Kowloon and the growing commercial art gallery sector are just a few examples of new and expanding opportunities.
Many Hong Kong students will continue to favor traditional degrees.
And there will always be demand for doctors, lawyers, teachers, businessmen and engineers.
But it is good to know that schools like the Technical and Higher Education Institute and Lingnan University are helping young people consider new or non-traditional subjects and skills.
Whether they are looking after trees or helping to run theaters, we will need them if we are to meet our future challenges.
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