Shackleton Lectures: Antarctic Explorer Songqiao Yao

Named after Dulwich College Alumnus and world-renowned Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, The Shackleton Lectures is an annual Dulwich College International network-wide event under our Worldwise Events Programme, where fascinating people are invited to share their stories with students, teacher and the wider community. 


For this year’s The Shackleton Lectures series – the first to be done back on campus since the pandemic began – Dulwich College Beijing is honoured to have welcomed Antarctic explorer, National Geographic Global Explorer and WildBound founder Songqiao Yao, whose adventures and story has served as an inspiration to our students and their teachers. She also has over 10 years of interdisciplinary and cross-cultural experience working as a researcher, activist, and entrepreneur on global issues such as food, water and climate change including experience conducting research on two of Asia’s biggest rivers, the Mekong and Nu-Salween.    


Ms Yao shared how these indigenous Bolivian women watched as group after group of men hiked their mountains and so they thought to themselves, “if they can do it, so can we.” Not only did they successfully do so, but they did it in their famous vibrant traditional dresses.


Songqiao Yao was the first Chinese participant and a faculty member of Homeward Bound, the largest all-female science expedition to Antarctica. Ms Yao has also led numerous expeditions to Antarctica. Joining us a few days short of Women’s International Day, she touched on important topics such as women empowerment, a brief history of human exploration in Antarctica, and the transformative power of travel and awareness, including her own story. 


Songqiao Yao meeting with our Senior School students


Today, Antarctica is a “continent for peace” thanks to the Antarctica Treaty signed in 1959, which meant signatories agreed to only use it for peaceful purposes. Today Antarctica is a place for peace and scientific research, which also includes protecting the environment, and that is one of the goals of the treaty.


However back in the day, early exploration of Antarctica during the “Heroic Age” meant research and exploration fuelled by national pride and to claim new territories, the whaling industry also heavily exploited the Southern Ocean. At one point, beautiful Paris was lit up using whale oil, derived from – you guessed it – whales. Experience and the reality of climate change, however, has taught us that our world’s resources are dwindling dramatically. For the world today, no single individual or institution can solve all the world’s biggest challenges; we all need to step up and become explorers for environmental conservation and collaboration to create a sustainable future. 


And we’re never too young to dream. Ms Yao also shared with her audiences in Year 4 that her dream to go to Antarctica began when she was around their age, after her uncle had shown her pictures of the continent. She immediately fell in love with these photos, which included penguins travelling by “walking” on their bellies – or at least that’s what she thought as there were no documentaries at the time to teach her otherwise. She fulfilled her dream at 26 when she finally reached Antarctica that not only ignited her love for exploration in Antarctica, but also nature conservation and empowering the youth to become the change they want to see in the world. 


According to DCB’s Director of Global Citizenship Samson Swanick, Ms Yao was an inspiration to our Global Citizenship Prefects and Service Prefects. “It was an honour to host Songqiao Yao at DCB. Her talk was truly motivational for the students, as they saw an empowered global citizen share her inspirational life journey. She gave the students an exemplary example of how a student who cares about the planet can create an impactful career to make the world a better place, both socially and environmentally, while also living a life of excitement, meaning, and purpose.”


Global Citizenship Prefect Michelle W’s biggest takeaway was Ms Yao’s definition of courage was knowing when to go back, knowing when to say no. “Her attitude of celebrating your own little moments and enjoying the process of living was very touching to me.”

Fellow Global Citizenship Prefect Gwendolyne P agrees. “It was very fascinating and inspiring, listening to her story and experiences. She pursued her passion, despite (the difficulties). It truly shows how, as long as you have motivation, anything is possible.”

And her advice to our students? “(When you travel,) don’t just take your backpack and water. Also bring with you your curiosity, imagination, and action.”


Thank you for visiting Ms Songqiao Yao!