Lover of Nature Defeats Obstacles to Leave Mark at UB
Kristina Blank wins prestigious scholarship
As a kid, Kristina Blank would walk around her small hometown of Craryville, N.Y. and pick up garbage off the streets that people had thrown out their car windows.
By age 12, she began a journey with her family to become a "46er," which entails climbing all 46 peaks of the Adirondack Mountains beyond an elevation of 4,000 feet.
She finished by age 16.
Her innate love for nature and the environment has possessed her to pursue a degree in environmental studies (with a chemistry minor), a career in environmental justice, and bring about real change in the world.
This past October, Blank won the SUNY Association of Council Members and College Trustees Excellence and Student Initiative Scholarship – a highly selective scholarship awarded to only four college students throughout New York State. The scholarship included a prize of $1,000 and an additional $250, which Blank donated to the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.
Although Blank is pursuing a career based around leadership, she is naturally shy. She hates the spotlight, and she even had anxiety attacks growing up when she had to speak in front of the smallest of groups.
However, someone who succeeds in environmental justice is someone who takes the lead; and that's exactly what she has decided to do.
"It became very apparent to me that this is a career for a select few people," Blank said. "You really have to be at the top of your career – you have to work for it this is really what you want to do.
"So I threw myself in whatever I could think of to make myself successful," Blank said. "One of the most important things I wanted to tackle is to be more of a leader. It became very apparent that if you want to be successful in the career you have to be able to organize people, [be] good with public speaking…I'm not very sure how I accomplished this still to this day. I kind of told myself, OK, this is the field I have to be in, and I need to be a leader in it. This is what I need to do, this is what I have to do."
Her father, Jonathan, who is an ex-forest ranger, largely influenced Blank's love for the environment. He left being a forest ranger to pursue a more practical career in the medical field. Now that he is the director of surgical services at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y., he encouraged Kristina to enter UB as a pharmacy major; this way, she would have a job waiting for her after graduation.
Kristina switched her major to environmental studies, though, in the fall semester of her sophomore year. She realized she needed to pursue her passion after attending a Power Shift conference with the Environmental Network (EN), an environmental club at UB.
By the spring semester, she brought the entire nationwide conference to UB. It took her all semester long, and after the conference the Honors College reviewed her work, and granted her four credits for it.
The following fall semester, Blank was elected president of the EN.
Before she was elected, Blank spent her summer interning for The Center for Health Environments and Justice (CHEJ). She spent the entire summer researching polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a flexible plastic material used in numerous school supplies that contains toxic chemicals.
She went to almost every store that sells school supplies to find out which contain the material. She then put together a back-to-school guide containing school supplies that do not contain PVC, which was distributed to about 30,000 students nationwide.
Blank continued her research on PVC, and brought her experience with CHEJ to UB. She organized a campaign to get PVC off of campus completely.
On Valentine's Day of her junior year, Blank and members of the EN set up their campaign in the Student Union, and urged students to "have a heart and go PVC free." Students who held up a sign with this slogan on it and had their picture taken were considered signers of the petition.
About 200 of these pictures were assembled, and sent to former UB president John B. Simpson as a visual petition, as well as a paper petition of about 500 signatures.
About a week later, Blank was asked to give a presentation to the Environmental Stewardship Committee, and she eventually convinced the committee to begin to get PVC off the UB campus.
The material subcommittee is currently working on changing its contract with Staples, the company that UB gets most of its school supplies from.
Elizabeth Colucci, senior assistant director of the Honors College and coordinator of the competitive scholarship and fellowship program, saw something in Blank, and convinced her to start applying for national scholarships.
Blank was a finalist for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship – the most prestigious undergraduate scholarship in the nation, and got honorable mention for the Udall Scholarship.
By her senior year, Blank stepped down as president of the EN to give someone else a chance to gain the leadership experience she had.
"Her whole focus was not to run everything herself, but to encourage the members to step up and do more and take more of a leadership position," said William Pople, current EN president. "She kind of directed from that idea where she didn't want to do everything, she didn't want to be the person to speak at all the meetings. She wanted other people to assume some kind of responsibility, and to encourage other people to be more active."
Kristina now seems to have found her niche. She is planning on going to the University of Washington next year for grad school to pursue environmental justice. This time around, she will be entering school as a leader instead of an apprehensive student.
"I am glad that she decided to fight for environmental injustices because I think a lot of people that are fighting for the environment can be looked at as kind of ‘hippie-ish,' and they get portrayed as a joke almost where people don't take them seriously," Pople said. "I think she's a face people can look at and say ‘OK she's a normal person, someone we can listen to, and we can respect her opinion, and she may have done the research.'"
Although it was Blank's father, Jonathan Blank, who made her a lover of nature, he was skeptical of his daughter studying environmental studies. Now he sees, however, that she is going above and beyond what he ever did as an environmental student.
"It's almost surreal some of the successes she's had," Jonathan Blank said. "When her younger sister ended up at UB, she was in some random class, and her professor was talking about this very, very motivated student. It turns out they're talking about [Kristina]. It's very bizarre to me that she's known on the campus, she's like a star…I think Kristina is extremely self deprecating to begin with, and she's not looking to be in the limelight or anything and she's looking to do well, and she's very modest."
Blank overcame major personal obstacles during these past few years at UB. She became a leader, despite her timid and shy nature. She realized what she wants to do with her life, and she has been put in the spotlight for realizing and pursuing her passions.
"When you connect with your passion, things just start to click," Jonathan said. "In her case, she blossomed."