Lacrosse's Karlee Blank is Making a Difference
Courtesy: Columbia University Athletics

Karlee Blank is used to making saves. As a first-year on the Columbia women's lacrosse team, Blank was one of two goalies who helped the Lions set a program record in wins. But in the summer following her rookie season, Blank added a different kind of save to her resume: saving the planet.

Blank, who plans to double major in East Asian Languages and Cultures and Political Science, spent three months working on bringing solar technology to a non-profit school in Tibet. Inspired by a Tibetan Civilization class taught by Professor Gray Tuttle, Blank decided to get involved. Though her options were limited as a first-year, she was not to be deterred, and Blank worked with her professor to find the right opportunity.

There are countless organizations that need volunteers, but Blank and her professor narrowed it down to the Joru Foundation, a non-profit organization that runs the Sengdruk Taktse School in China's Qinghai Province. The school, located in the ethnically Tibetan town of Darlag, educates and houses Tibetan orphans and children of nomads, who would otherwise be unable to afford an education.

Because the school operates free of cost for those who attend, it faces many financial challenges; one of those challenges is keeping the school warm. Tibet is located on mountains and plateaus, including some of the highest peaks in the world. Due to the cold temperatures and elevation, the school is forced to heat buildings for the duration of the year.  Though they currently heat with coal, the Sengdruk Taktse School wished to minimize both its expenses and its effect on the environment by implementing solar technology. Recognizing their need for both technological and financial support, Blank decided she wanted to help.

With the assistance of her professors, Blank applied for and received a Weatherhead East Asian Institute Undergraduate Training Grant to help fund her goal to improving the school's environmental sustainability, focusing primarily on lighting and heating.

Blank spent the first half of her summer interning at Columbia's Center for Technological Innovation and Community Engagement (CTICE) in preparation for her trip. While at CTICE, she was able to pursue the technology needed for her project, and identified two major needs: heating the school, and providing environmentally friendly sources of light and power for the students and monks after the sunset.

Two companies stepped up to help Blank with her latest save attempt: Barefoot Power, and Solar Air Systems. Barefoot Power supplied Blank with solar-powered lights and cell phone chargers, so that the monks could charge their phones and the students could study at night without using electricity generated by coal. Solar Air Systems helped Blank develop a custom-made solar window-heating unit. Due to the extreme weather Tibetans can face, Blank focused her attention on indoor means of solar collection to ensure that what technology was installed would last. Blank collaborated with Solar Air Systems to create custom-made solar window heating units that sit on the inside of the windows, generating heat when the sun is shining.  The units allow the school to turn down their thermostats, and consequently reduce their coal usage in the day.

After weeks of preparation, Blank was ready to embark on the second half of her project in early August: a trip to Tibet to install and distribute the fruits of her labor.  But Blank ran into an unexpected hurdle upon arriving in China:  the plague.  Travelers to Qinghai Province were evacuated and sent to Beijing until the quarantine was lifted. 

That good news came too late for Blank: once the quarantine was lifted on August 16, she had just four days until her flight home to New York.  Despite numerous attempts to reach the school or prolong her trip, Blank was unsuccessful. Instead, she was forced to rely on a few recent USC graduates who arrived at the school months earlier to install the technology, and send her accounts of how the new technology is working.

Despite her troubles, Blank was encouraged by the experience, and established a pen pal program with the Tibetan school and an elementary school in the USA. And she hopes to go back to China again, and finally get to Tibet.

"I am disappointed that the trip did not go as scheduled, but am not discouraged," Blank said.  "I hope to return to the school next summer, and hopefully establish an entrepreneurial venture for the school.  If Sengdruk Taktse can have a means of income generation, the standards of living can hopefully rise for students, teachers, and monks residing at the school."

"This trip, though seemingly plagued, helped me realize that I definitely want to pursue a career in the areas of international relations and human rights, especially as they relate to China and the international community," Blank said.

Luckily for Sengdruk Taktse, this save attempt is one that Blank will continue to fight for long after her career as a lacrosse goalie is over.