Charlottesville prides itself on being a bicycle-friendly town, but can you imagine biking 3,000 miles? Kiersten Downs, a 30-year-old Air Force veteran and doctoral student, has traveled coast to coast on two wheels to advocate for Student Veterans of America (SVA), a program that funds and supports former military members who want to pursue higher education. This weekend, Downs is stopping in Charlottesville to visit friends and ride with a group of local cyclists to Fredericksburg before heading up to Washington, D.C.
Downs joined the military in 2001, and enrolled at Binghamton University in 2005 after leaving active duty. The only veteran on campus at the time, and still a New York Air National Guard reservist, Downs said she struggled with the transition from barracks to dorm rooms. The isolation was heightened halfway through her junior year when she began preparing for deployment to Iraq, and had no resources on campus available.
“I had to process my own education benefits, which was really quite a headache,” Downs said. “Dealing with bureaucracy is awful—no one should have to deal with it themselves.”
Upon returning from her deployment, Downs got involved with SVA, which formed in 2009 and now has more than 600 local chapters on college campuses across all 50 states. Its mission is to provide military veterans with the resources they need to pursue higher education and find employment after graduation, with chapter and individual scholarships and peer-led support groups.
“There’s just such a huge gap between military and civilian culture,” Downs said. “I understand the need for these services, and the culture of current vets that are returning to school.”
The 3,800-mile advocacy ride kicked off on July 1, and Downs plans to arrive at the SVA headquarters in Washington, D.C. on Monday, August 5. As of last week, she had raised $48,000 of her $50,000 goal, which she said will go through the chapter grant program and directly into the hands of student veterans.
As for the ride itself, Downs said the physical toll hasn’t been as challenging as one might think—a personal trainer and spin class instructor, she was already biking at least 200 miles a week before the trip. Most surprising, she said, was the amount of concern people seem to have for her safety as a young female.
“People have said to me, ‘Aren’t you scared out there, as a woman all alone?’ I haven’t felt threatened once,” she said. “It’s just funny to me that people get really focused on the fact that I’m 30 years old, not married, and a woman.”
Unfazed by the new altitude out west and endless hours of pedaling, Downs said the trip became about camaraderie with fellow veterans and cyclists, and finally seeing the country she’s always lived in but never explored.
“There’s no better way to see the world than on a bike,” she said.
Downs and her support team will arrive in Charlottesville on Saturday, August 3. The following day she’ll take off from Elswick Band Instrument Repair on Rio Road to bike to Fredericksburg, then on to her final destination in Washington, D.C. If you’re interested in joining her on your own bike, or you just want to donate and wish her luck, contact Vanessa Elswick at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit bikingusa.net for details.