More than one billion people have little or no access to electricity, according to data from the nonprofit Sustainable Energy for All.

Which is why the impact of one invention, the “Solar Suitcase”  —a bright blue portable box that pairs with a solar panel to provide light and power specifically for energy-deficient schools and orphanages — has been so transformative in some of the poorest countries on the planet, including Uganda, Congo and Kenya.

“Electricity is essential in schools. For one thing, it enables classes to be taught and students to study at night,” says professor Karina Garbesi, Ph.D., director of the environmental studies program at CSU East Bay and a founding member of the board of directors of We Care Solar, which uses the suitcases to promote safe childbirth in developing countries.

“Overall, electricity improves literacy and educational success rates," adds Dr. Garbesi. "In fact, one Solar Suitcase recipient school reported that for the first time their students were able to pass the high school exams and qualify for higher education. Those first tens of watts can be transformative for the community as a whole.”

One hallmark of Garbesi’s teaching at CSU East Bay is her love of drawing on expertise in disciplines ranging from physics and environmental engineering to economics and social justice. She uses her vast experience to engage students in a labor of love—bringing light to some of the world’s poorest children.

Where others see unscalable walls (or simply tragic circumstances), Garbesi sees life-affirming solutions, and on the largest possible scale.

“Solar…allows us to bring light to parts of the world that [have no light] when the sun goes down,” she says.

“Without power and light, midwives cannot diagnose birth emergencies or contact emergency services, hospitals can’t perform safe surgeries, children can’t read or learn or play, and orphanages are left in the dark. We can solve that—all of that!”

Ever the dedicated educator, she readily sees, too, a powerful link between solar energy and increasing access to possibility for more of her CSU East Bay students.

“Solar is the fastest-growing industry in the nation and probably the world. Think what that means for our students—especially for those living on the margins, for whom a solar education enables entry to economic opportunity,” she says enthusiastically.

“We can simultaneously give our students access to a career and the chance to make a serious, life-transforming impact around the world while saving the planet from climate disruption. It’s beyond win-win!”

A Leading Light

Working in partnership with We Care Solar, Garbesi has turned a course at CSU East Bay into a local and global community engagement project to promote sustainability and social justice.

Her multi-generation education model operates simultaneously at CSU East Bay and in schools around the campus. Classes center on building the We Share Solar Suitcases developed by We Care Solar for use in schools and orphanages in the world’s poorest countries. 

For their part, students in Garbesi’s “Social Impact through Sustainable Solar Design” course, which she co-teaches with Erik Helgren, Ph.D., an associate professor and chair of CSU East Bay’s physics department, learn about solar energy by building, testing, and troubleshooting the Solar Suitcases.

Explains Garbesi, “[The CSU East Bay students] then share this knowledge with local low-income middle school students at Solar Suitcase-building workshops, assisting teachers who were taught the curriculum the prior summer, while deepening their own knowledge and providing the schoolchildren with a direct link to their local university.”

But what really galvanizes the students, regardless of age, she says, is knowing that once they’ve built their suitcases, the devices will go on to be used in energy-deficient schools and orphanages throughout the developing world.

“Students at all levels learn by hands-on building and are motivated by helping others,” she adds, “and it becomes a platform to understand the bigger picture of energy poverty and sustainability. It also allows us to bring the voices of the underserved into the conversation.”

Core to Garbesi’s ethos is providing access to a quality education, career opportunities, and the resources needed to address gross inequality in socioeconomic level, race, and even affinity for the STEM disciplines.

“The [Solar Suitcase] program has been really transformative, individually and across generations,” she notes.

“The younger kids—80 percent of whom are from lower-income families and are 100 percent under-represented minorities in STEM—see my college students and opportunity, while my [CSU East Bay] students love giving back to their own neighborhoods and being part of the excitement the little kids experience when they turn on their suitcases for the first time.”​

The Power of Community

The demographics of Cal State East Bay students are particularly meaningful to Garbesi.

“More than 50 percent of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and in them there’s a logical connection to solving the problem [of the] widening gap” between rich and poor, she notes.

“The people on the low end are incredibly vulnerable. So it’s a huge question: Do we allow our society to continue to become so polarized? Or do we create the kinds of societies we want to live in?”

For Garbesi, the answer is clear: She wants to be part of a transformation that creates lasting impact. At CSU East Bay, “We have incredible access to a very large community of people who can make a difference. We have the resources,” she says, noting that students, faculty, and those in the nearby communities are highly motivated to make change.

“It’s just a matter of lighting that match.”