Land and See

Karlis Rokpelnis

Karlis Rokpelnis with rooftop solar panels. At the moment this photo was taken, the system was producing 1252.04 watts.

Karlis Rokpelnis ’09 says it was wanderlust that compelled him to leave his family’s farm in Latvia to study acting in Denmark, volunteer in the Arctic and learn six languages before arriving at Whitman as an international student. He has since taken on a leadership role in environmental projects on campus and off, helping to establish bus service between Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities, a regional urban center about 50 miles away, and is the college’s first sustainability coordinator.

“There must have been an urge to begin with, this idea that there’s something beyond the pond…because I’ve been going all the time,” he said. “I’ve been looking for interesting and far away places.”

Rokpelnis came to Whitman for its environmental studies-politics program, bringing with him a passion for conservation cultivated in part during his year-long volunteer experience in the Canadian Arctic where he studied climate change and worked with local indigenous groups, an experience Rokpelnis recalls as transformative.

“If there was a conversion moment, that definitely was it in respect to understanding how big everything is and how complicated and connected environmental issues are,” he said. “It sort of highlighted how deeply people are connected to where they’re from, connected to their environment.”

His four years at Whitman have been a testament to that connection. Rokpelnis, whose senior thesis is on the impact of the environment on ethnic conflict in Xinjiang, western China, maintains a high level of involvement on campus, out in the community, and beyond.

Since enrolling at Whitman, he has visited China twice, once as a member of the Whitman Summer Studies in China program and again through study abroad. He speaks conversational Chinese—and Russian and Italian, and is fluent in Danish and his native Latvian. Rokpelnis believes the ability to communicate with others helps shape his outlook.

“The world can be a pretty awful place, but by not engaging with the world you don’t get to understand it, you don’t get to participate. And I like participating.”

That’s an understatement. Working with a team of local lobbyists, Rokpelnis helped establish the Grapeline bus service between Walla Walla and the Tri-Cities. He stays in touch with the community by reading the Union Bulletin’s letters to the editor, and says he can now identify some contributors by name. On-campus groups like the American Indian Association also have extended his local outreach.

“I’ve had the chance to go out to the Umatilla reservation a number of times and participate in the events there, and I’ve gone to the sweat lodge at the VA, which is for veterans – mostly Native veterans, but really open to anybody,” he said.

In September 2008, Rokpelnis was selected as campus sustainability coordinator, a new position designed to help Whitman meet its sustainability goals, to serve as liaison between student activists and the administration, officially reporting to Whitman’s Conservation Committee.

“People think of themselves as pretty environmental here,” Rokpelnis said, noting that while many students adopt the trendy mantra of being “green,” some see it as a way of life rather than just an aesthetic preference.

“You can find the whole spectrum, including the very—perhaps even counterproductively—provocative, ideological people, who are into guerilla gardening, the idea that you plant seeds in the asphalt and they will come through, you know, and you’ll get sunflowers in crazy places,” he laughed. “And then you have those who are interested in environmental social justice and trying to make the world a more just place. You have those who are only interested in making Whitman a measurably greener place.”

His biggest projects are working on an audit of Whitman’s greenhouse gas emissions and developing “more extensive institutional knowledge of what we do here environmentally.” Much of this progress can be tracked on the sustainability wiki—a Web site that allows users to share information.

He jokes that his accent prevents him from pronouncing the name of the Web site properly.

“I can’t pronounce the w,” Rokpelnis complained, saying it as more of a v sound. So of course, “I had to go to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.”

For Rokpelnis, compiling information is “the less sexy and glamorous thing about this position—you have to work with the figures.”

A more serious challenge he faces is striking a balance between being what he calls a “boring environmental bureaucrat” and a student activist, something that is “not an unknown tension. I think I a lot of people are dealing with that,” adding that he sees himself pursuing the former in the future, through an administrative career in either a state or non-profit organization. He has considered returning home after graduation to work for the Latvian government, but says his plans may depend on that country’s economic condition. (“The government may go bankrupt anytime soon, so if that happens it’s going to be a little hard to get a job, I think.” He jokes, “People think it’s bad here?”)

Spending time with his friendship family also has fortified this link to the community. (International students are given the option of having a local family serve as a surrogate during their time at Whitman.) Rokpelnis introduced his friendship family to his parents when they visited from Latvia for the first time during his junior year. “It was a big deal,” he said. “My parents hadn’t been on any big trip since their honeymoon in Uzbekistan 25 years ago.”

After so much traveling before and during his Whitman career, he said, “it has come to me how important it is to belong to a place.”

Despite his responsibilities as sustainability coordinator and continued work for local and student groups, not to mention the academic and social pressures of being a Whitman student, Rokpelnis still finds time for two of his favorite hobbies: gardening and folk dance.

He waves off notions of being over-committed.

“You always have time for good people and good things. I don’t believe there’s such a thing as not having enough time.”

Learn more about Rokpelnis’ and others’ sustainability efforts at www.whitman.edu/about-whitman/campus-sustainability.

– Gillian Frew