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UB's 'Born Leader' Is Finalist for Prestigious Harry S. Truman Student Scholarship

Student Kristina Blank possesses a passion to change the world

By Adrian Finch

Release Date: March 22, 2011

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University at Buffalo student Kristina Blank is a finalist for the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship, which awards $30,000 to students interested in public service.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- University at Buffalo student Kristina Blank holds the title of an Adirondack 46er -- someone who hikes all 46 major peaks beyond an elevation of 4,000 feet. It took her four years, but in doing so she reaffirmed her respect for Mother Nature and discovered a passion that's been a hallmark of her time as a UB student.

A native of Craryville, N.Y., 45 minutes south of Albany, Blank was born a leader. Since her days as a fifth-grader leading her class in a campaign against oil drilling in Alaska, to her current role as president of the UB student activist group, the Environmental Network, Blank has demonstrated a natural ability to invoke passion in others and bring about real change in the environment and her community.

Her obvious leadership ability was the chief reason Blank was chosen among more than 600 applicants from over 264 colleges and universities as a finalist for the prestigious Harry S. Truman Scholarship. Each year, between 70 and 75 students receive the $30,000 scholarship, awarded to college juniors pursuing graduate school for public service. Blank will face down any nervousness later this month when she's interviewed by a scholarship committee that includes prominent legal scholars, a university president, a well-known journalist and past Truman Scholars.

After that, she hopes she will be among a selected few to receive the scholarship. Winners will be announced in April.

"I think it's my passion that makes me stand out," Blank says. "It's something I really tried to develop to show how much I care about environmental justice. I know a lot of applicants learn about the Truman Scholarship early on in their academic careers and try to set themselves up to look like good leaders.

"But everything I do is a genuine action because I care about these issues."

Blank's qualifications as a Truman scholar finalist extend into the classroom. A junior, she maintains a 3.8 GPA, carries the title of a UB Honors College Scholar and last year was inducted into the national honor society, Phi Beta Kappa.

In 2012, she will graduate with a bachelor's of science degree in environmental studies and a minor in chemistry. She hopes to enroll in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, and plans to pursue a dual master's degree in natural resource and environment and public policy.

"Kristina is not one to take on a project or leadership role for personal recognition or accolade," observes Clyde F. ("Kipp") Herreid, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and academic director of UB's Honors College. "Rather, she is extremely genuine in her actions and always leads with her passion. She is incited to act not only because she believes it is the right thing to do but also feels it is her duty."

Despite her current passion for the environment, Blank initially shied away from pursuing opportunities in environmental policy.

"I regret not realizing that I was so committed to environmental studies earlier," Blank says. "I've always known that I was interested in the environment, but I started school as an intended pharmacy major. I never thought I could make a career out of anything environmental, so I stayed on the pharmacy track for a year and half. Eventually, I knew that I had to respond to my inner passion."

Blank says her time as a pharmacy major was beneficial because it led her to minor in chemistry, something that's proven beneficial to understanding the scientific side of environmental policy.

"I believe strong polices are needed to reach communities and environments that are in danger," Blank says. "I believe that policymakers should have a strong scientific background. I don't want to only rely on scientists telling me what's true. I want to be able to look into it myself and understand what's happening so I can write effective policies."

Beyond the UB campus, Blank has worked with notable individuals -- including award-winning Love Canal activist, Lois Gibbs. Blank worked in her office, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, where her research on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," was used to inform the Center for Health, Environment and Justice when the organization testified before the EPA during their public hearings about fracking.

Gibbs inspired Blank to begin a campaign of her own against the purchasing of PVC products -- sometimes known as the poison plastic -- on campus. PVC is found in everyday products like clothing, toys, roofs, windows, flooring and even credit cards, and releases dangerous chemicals that harm the environment and health of consumers, Blank says.

"The way that we have been living for the past couple hundred years since the Industrial Revolution is not sustainable," Blank says. "Many people are blind to this fact and think that we can continue consuming our resources and living as we do forever, and that's not true.

"We're at a tipping point in this day and age. We have the ability to open people's eyes and make sure our future decisions are sustainable, and make sure people are well informed so we can live a quality of life that Americans respect."

Blank says her greatest accomplishment, so far, has been her organization of the Power Shift N.Y. Environmental Conference, a summit held on the UB campus last April to bring together New York State youth leaders to network, communicate, collaborate and educate each other about ways to achieve a sustainable, environmentally conscious future.

"I think it's really important to empower other students to make a difference on their own," Blank explains. "It's more important to make sure that people are independent leaders. That's not really quantifiable, but it's very important."

After completing a master's program in three years -- and hopefully interning abroad with the United Nations Environment Program in Kenya -- Blank wants to pursue work with a governmental agency.

"I'd like to have a leadership career in the Office of Sustainable Communities of the Environmental Protection Agency, pending how effective I feel I am," Blank says. "I don't know how strong my voice will be there until I'm working there, so if that's not effective as a means of achieving my ambitions to make a difference, I'm interested in working for the Natural Resource Defense Council or starting my own nonprofit company to push for strong environmental policies that fight environmental injustices."

Wherever Blank ends up, she's certain to lead real change in the environment and do something meaningful for not only her community, but the world.

"It sounds idealistic, but I would like to help change our cultural mindset as an American society -- and the way that we think about our interactions with the environment and think about our planet," Blank says.

"I want to make the American people understand that we rely on the planet. We are equal to the planet. And we need to respect it."

Just like the climb up the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, Blank knows that anything worth accomplishing takes perseverance. But, the view at top makes all the effort worthwhile.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.