We’re home!

We are proud to announce that on August 3rd, Lidia and John safely arrived it back to DC! Exploding with endorphins and unbridled relief, they pulled into Yorktown on the 3rd and marked the end of the ride by walking straight into the Pacific Ocean with their bikes. This to satisfy ancient bicycle tradition which demands the cyclist’s back tire be christened in the Pacific and front in the Atlantic. After extricating themselves from the water, they found the closest bar, took a seat, ordered two celebratory beers, two large burgers, and a giant slice of bread pudding. This post is meant to capture the reflections, commentaries, agreements and disagreements that occurred during that final feast and the weeks since.

Reflection #1: We have a beautiful and diverse country

The United States is overflowing with history and wonder. In our 3,600 mile journey, we traced the footsteps of the tens of thousands of 49ers who crossed sagebrush deserts and frozen Sierra Nevadas in pursuit of gold. We stayed at way points and station houses that captured spring water for the men of the Pony Express (folks who ideally, were lanky orphans with a sense for adventure and an understanding that each ride will likely be their last), and we spoke separately with members of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Navajo tribe who see the history of the U.S. differently than their compatriots. We saw mining operations larger than mountains, agricultural plantations that touched the horizon, and cities where the internet hasn’t yet made its debut. The food we ate changed from climate to climate, the accents from region to region, and the people themselves gradually but certainly as we progressed. 

By visiting only coastal cities, one cannot claim to know the U.S. This applies to U.S. citizens, just as much as those traveling from abroad.

Knoxville Gas Station converted into live music park

Reflection #2: People on average are great

Over the entire ride, we only had one man engage us in a suspicious manner—everyone else was incredibly kind. At least once a week, we found ourselves in a stranger’s home, a warm meal prepared, a washing machine at the ready, and a bed made. Multiple times a week, we had individuals stop their vehicles to hand us bottled waters or fruit. We had grocery store owners fill our arms full of goods that would feed us for days on end. And if we had a bike breakdown, we had to hide ourselves to keep from holding up traffic as car after car would stop to offer assistance. 

And this doesn’t even touch on the fact that this ride was entirely funded by individuals who wanted to see rural and low-income communities represented  in DC and abroad. We owe so much to the generosity of others. 

Free BBQ and school supplies event hosted by Bill Hall and other local businesses who want to make sure no children go to school wanting

Agreement #1: Much of the U.S. is isolated

Surprisingly, we found it quite difficult to get internet access for much of our ride. Many towns we passed through had little to no internet connectivity. Universally, when people discovered Lidia’s Russian origin, they grew super excited. Many of them told us she was the first person they had met from over seas. 

Agreement #2: Cycling is better than driving

Acres and acres of tobacco, it smelled amazing

If you really want to see the country, cycling is the way to do it. Not only are you forced to reckon with distances, elevations, weather and wildlife, but people are significantly more likely to talk with you and welcome you into their community. 

Agreement #3: Cottage cheese and peaches is one of the best desserts out there

No need to expand upon this.

Commentary #1: This journey was life changing.

We cannot put into words what this trip has done for us, but we are different people now than when we began.

Lidia and I soaking up some Sweet Pea’s BBQ in Knoxville

What now:

Lidia and John are engaged in employment search mode. Once they’ve sent out enough resumes to feel comfortable, they will begin reaching out to their contacts to start discussions on how to best connect the DC IR community to their students.

Mission Update #2 – Jubilation and Disappointment

In an update that is both one of our most exciting and disappointing to write, we’ve got a lot to cover. To begin with, let’s talk successes.

To date, we’ve met with administration and faculty at Fort Lewis College, Southern Utah University, Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University, Colorado State University, and Ozark Technical College. In addition, via invite, we spent the weekend with the former lieutenant governor of Illinois, Sheila Simon, who provided us with a variety of resources and connections to advance our goals (we were also encouraged to reach out to Senators Durbin and Wicker regarding the Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act, which aims to expand study abroad programs for higher education institutions across the country). Beyond this, we’ve met with miners who have offered to connect us with their corporate heads to discuss fully-paid scholarship programs for miners who would like to pursue higher education.

Lidia after a successful meeting with staff at Fort Lewis College

At each meeting, we’ve explained that our goal is to expand representation of students from low-income, rural, and heartland backgrounds in DC as well as study abroad programs, and that we have the potential to offer a variety of services including application review, coaching, and roomstays. We want to help students overcome the skill and funding gap that currently exists between upper/middle class East Coasters and those who have had less access to resources and opportunities. Administrators and faculty have responded with overwhelming positivity and excitement. Each and every meeting has resulted in brainstorming sessions and promises of future engagement to get students from diverse backgrounds to DC and abroad.

At Fort Lewis College, a school that awards 16% of all degrees earned by Native Americans in the U.S., administrators asked us to organize student-led skype sessions for classrooms from all disciplines at the start of the semester. They believe there would be tremendous interest from their students, especially if they’re able to connect with young professionals near their age.

At Missouri State University, the head of the History Department asked if it would be possible to coordinate with us to build a new certificate program that would prepare  students to be competitive in DC and overseas. 

From the miners unions, we were asked if we’d be able to speak with workers about  how to apply skills learned in the mining sector to careers in policy and international relations. There was particular excitement about SAIS’ Energy, Resources, and the Environment concentration.

In all, we have had the opportunity to interact with these institutions in meaningful ways that have helped establish long-term working relationships with school officials. Over and over, our partners said this was the first time a group from DC reached out to discuss how to bring their students to our nation’s capitol and that we have the potential to create pathways that could reach thousands of underrepresented students each year. We celebrate these successes as the first of many steps needed to change the landscape of the leadership in Washington, DC and abroad so that it better reflects the diversity of our country.

In sum, we’re excited, yet there is a lot of work to do when we get back — and we’re almost there.

Small detour to Tennessee

Now for the disappointing news. SAIS has decided not to endorse us this year. The school has  not yet given a reason, but we were promised an official message soon. It’s hard to frame this news in any other way than sincere disappointment. The students and professors we have met this summer are excited about SAIS, and we believe that we are contributing significantly to diversifying SAIS’ student population. In addition, the lack of cooperation from SAIS has made it near impossible for us to reach our second goal: to raise money for the SAIS Underrepresented Communities Fellowship. We have reached out to the financial aid and development offices several times to request literature about the new Fellowship and current fundraising mechanisms, but we have received very limited information. Our difficulty working with the SAIS administration is particularly disheartening considering that SAIS lags behind its peer institutions in terms of providing financial support to students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds. When talking with students with limited financial means, we’ve been forced to be candid about how SAIS’ funding models compare to those of other institutions.

At this moment, many of our riders are facing sincere financial hardship. Several joined the ride under the impression that SAIS would help support us (indeed, we received encouraging words from our school’s leadership before we began). Now, our riders have been forced to finance the trip through leftover student loans. 

Moving forward, we recognize that our work has just begun. Even after the ride ends, we will continue to build relationships with the schools we met with this summer. We are already planning skype sessions with students this Fall, are continuing to build our informal mentoring program, and are drafting documents to be reviewed by university provosts and administors. However, given the news we’ve received from SAIS, we no longer feel that we can promote SAIS exclusively over peer institutions. Instead, we will be promoting all international relations programs in DC equally. We will also be reaching out to new potential sponsors to see if they’d be interested in supporting us in the Fall. 

As we reflect on our journey the last few months, we again call upon SAIS to reaffirm its commitment to diversifying its student body. Programs like our ride, while not officially part of SAIS, are key to building a more equitable university that reflects the diversity of our country. Should future SAIS students come to the university requesting support for a ride, we implore the university to listen, to reflect, and recognize that this initiative has the potential to positively change the landscape of the student body for decades to come. 

As always, thank you for reading, and thank you for supporting us! —  GoFundMe

On the road at 6am

Sarahann and Jesse say goodbye!

(Disclaimer: This post is a little out of date, we’ll have another coming up shortly. Thanks for your support!)

Hello from Pueblo, CO! Since last checking in, our team has traversed mountains, lakes, and the Great Divide. We have also talked with administrators at Fort Lewis College in Durango, CO and Colorado State University in Pueblo, CO.

A little refreshment to celebrate our Colorado crossing

This leg of our journey began in Blanding, UT. There, we celebrated Lidia’s 27th birthday with Navajo burgers made by a local family. The burgers had all the fixings of a classic burger, but they were wrapped in homemade fry bread. Needless to say, they were delicious!

Next, we traveled through Monticello, UT and into Colorado. Our first stop was in a small farming town called Lewis. John ran into a local grocery store to ask about nearby camping options, and he met Rod. After learning about our ride, Rod invited us back to his ranch and let us camp in his RV. He showed us his horses, fed us homemade zucchini bread, and shared stories of traveling around the world. Plus, his home had a stunning view of the Colorado mountains.

Out of Utah and into Colorado

The next morning, Rod helped us adjust our biking route so that we would follow safer, more populated roads. In the end, we broke away from the Adventure Cycling Association’s route and instead chose to roughly follow the route of the Race Across America. Our new path took us through Durango, home to a huge cycling community. While there, we were hosted by Jody and Seth through Warm Showers. They were incredibly kind and welcoming, and they helped introduce us to professors atFort Lewis College.

On July 3rd, we met with the Vice President of Advancement, Mark Jastorff, at Fort Lewis. We discussed the purpose of our trip, the lack of representation of individuals from low-income backgrounds in DC, and our plans to implement an informal mentoring program. He was excited to connect us with other staff members at Fort Lewis and begin exploring how SAIS students can mentor undergrads at his university. We are especially excited about this relationship because Fort Lewis awards 16% of all undergraduate degrees conferred to Native Americans in the US. We hope our partnership will allow Native students’ voices to be heard in DC and abroad.

Next, we traveled to Pagosa Springs, a small town at the foothills of the Rockies. We celebrated July 4th with a pancake breakfast, a town parade, and watching the fireworks from a rooftop hot springs spa. From Pagosa Springs, we climbed to Wolf Creek Pass–which crosses the Great Divide. Then we sailed down the mountain to a town called Del Norte, where we spent the night in a town park.

Fireworks over Pagosa Springs

The next morning, we biked over 80 miles from Del Norte to Salida. We crossed over from the Rio Grande watershed to the Arkansas River watershed. In Salida, we stopped by Simple Foods Market, which donated day-old groceries to us after hearing about our ride. The food was delicious, high quality, and just what we needed!

Finally, we made the 100-mile journey from Salida to Pueblo, CO. This marked the end of our journey through the Western mountains, and we will now be headed into the Great Plains. In Pueblo, we were grateful to be hosted by Marlene, who we were connected with through friends in Durango. Marlene was incredibly hospitable. We enjoyed played chess and watching Star Wars with her three charming (and brilliant!) children. Marlene also helped us connect with administrators and professors at Colorado State University – Pueblo.

In Pueblo, we also said goodbye to Sarahann and Jesse, who are headed back East. We also meet with our dear friends, Yizhen and Chris, who are both SAIS grads and recently relocated to Denver. Next week, we will be biking through Kansas, and then we will be in Missouri.

Mission Update: June 20th, 2019

By: John

Our Goals:

Because we’ve received so much support from the SAIS community and beyond, we wanted to make sure that everyone is kept up-to-date on what we’ve accomplished regarding our trip goals. We set out on this ride to increase rural and low-income communities’ access to and knowledge of career-building opportunities in Washington, DC. This includes sub-goals, such as:

  1. To inform young people about educational and career opportunities in DC
  2. To increase a desire among target communities to apply for these programs
  3. To establish connections between cycling team members and interested parties to ensure that rural and low-income applicants are qualified for these programs
Cycling through mining towns in NV

Our Progress:

As the first group of students who have participated in this ride, we have faced many challenges that have slightly delayed–but not halted–our outreach. The majority of our time leading up to our departure from San Francisco was spent on logistics and fundraising. When we left on June 4th, we were immediately hit by several bike-related mechanical malfunctions and difficulties adjusting to long days in the saddle. In the first week, we fell two days behind schedule, causing us to suspend outreach until we established a clear rhythm and could predict our route.

Community Outreach:

On June 10th, we resumed outreach and contacted 10 schools, community centers, and churches across Nevada and eastern Utah. We received responses from two groups: the public school district in Austin, NV and Southern Utah University (SUU) in Cedar City, UT. From this, we set up a formal meeting with students in the government department at SUU, which will be taking place tomorrow.

Meaningful Conversations:

Moreover, we’ve had countless meaningful conversations. One of the most rewarding conversations was with a youth who joined us for lunch at a mountain station meant for weary travelers. His family owned the place, and he spent many hours asking us questions. When we began to ask him about his plans for the future, he was resolute that he had no desire to go to college. After talking to him about the differences between college and high school and then speaking of our experiences traveling the world, he was won over. By the time we left, he said he wished we were staying longer. One of our riders heard him start talking with his family about studying engineering in college.

Planning our next visit

Establishing Connections:

At the same time, we have been establishing in-person connections with individuals in the towns we visit. Most of these individuals are community leaders and are interested in helping facilitate formal meetings for next year’s SAIS Cycling For Access team. We hope future riders can visit:

  • Carson City, NV: The capital of Nevada boasts a population of 55,000 people, and we expected that it would be relatively affluent. Though charming in many ways, we were surprised to find every sign of widespread poverty. Countless streets were marked by payday loan lenders, dollar stores, laundromats, pawnshops, liquor stores and brothels. More interesting was the disposition of the population. At one point we found ourselves talking to the former head of IT for Nevada’s search and rescue department. Upon hearing our mission, he declared, “We don’t have a voice in Washington. Our representatives could care less about anyone that doesn’t live in Reno or Vegas, that’s where their votes come from.” Talks with others confirmed a widespread feeling that if you’re from Nevada and you don’t live in Reno or Vegas, not only is there no federal government in your life, there is no state government. It’s exactly these feelings that we hope future rides can begin to reverse.
  • Fallon, NV: Despite its small population (8,606), Fallon has a current enrollment of 500 students in their satellite college associated with Western Nevada College in Carson. Nearly 75% of the degrees awarded are for students earning an Associates degree that are looking to transfer to a four-year institution. Of these students, nearly all come from agricultural backgrounds. We hope next year’s riders will have an opportunity to meet with these individuals so they can begin preparing for an education in DC.
  • Eureka, NV: In a small town with a population of 610, Eureka’s economy is built on mining. The greater population is closer to 1,800, consisting mostly of young male miners in their early to late twenties. A local business owner and retired miner has volunteered to connect next year’s team with the local mining companies, which he assures us would be very interested in getting their employees to attend a meeting. After telling him about the SAIS Energy Resources and Environment (ERE) program, he informed us that the mining companies try to recruit internally for high-level positions, but they have great difficulty securing qualified talent. As such, they’ve put together large and generous scholarship packages for miners pursuing graduate education. Bringing a group of seasoned miners into the SAIS student body to study ERE would be an invaluable contribution to diversity at the school.
Downtown Eureka, NV

Why Diversity Matters:

We’ve quickly learned that if we want to increase diversity in international relations, we also need to have a diverse SAIS Cycling For Access team. Lidia and Josh, our two teammates of foreign birth, are the centerpieces of interest in many of our conversations. People want to know what it’s like to live in Russia (Lidia) or the UK (Josh), why our friends came to the US, and what they think of the US. By just being a part of the ride, Lidia and Josh are able to directly address stereotypes and expose our audience to different cultures.

This has led us to regret that our team shrunk from 13 to 6 students. Because we have yet been able to secure funding from our school, we lost two Chinese students, one Korean, one Spanish, and one African-American. We’re less impactful without a diverse team. For example, an African-American uber driver commented that we were all white, saying “black students don’t have the genetics to do something like this.” We need to challenge this misperception. We encourage next year’s group to reach out and recruit diverse students from the very beginning. And we call upon SAIS to financially support this ride to broaden access for current students and alumni.

Secondly, we believe international students from SAIS could learn a lot about the United States through Cycling For Access. There is nothing comparable that allows students to witness the vastness of the U.S. landscape, the foundations of the economy, and the diversity and kindness of the population. We’ve seen mining operations with rubble piles larger than the surrounding mountains and alfalfa operations stretching as far as the eye can see. The majority of our nights have been spent camping on the lawns of generous people, and we can all recall the fellow who pulled over his car to bring us blueberries, or the Mexican-American worker who called the team over to his truck and prepared fresh pork tacos for us. This is the America we want our foreign classmates to see.

Mine debris outside Ely, NV

Next Steps:

Currently, our team is regrouping in Cedar City, UT and preparing for the next leg of our journey. Tomorrow, we will be presenting at Southern Utah University, which we’ll report back on soon. While here, we’re also reaching out to community groups throughout Utah and eastern Colorado, creating business cards to distribute to our new connections, and designing flyers for community college outreach.