Forget sleeping late and hanging at the beach. Kiersten Downs has some serious travel plans over summer break.
Recalling her own struggles in transitioning from military to academic life, the University of South Florida student is preparing to bicycle from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to raise money and awareness for student veterans.
The 3,800 mile trip will take a little over two months; she’ll be back in Tampa for the fall semester.
“When I was an undergraduate, the support services that we are seeing pop up now weren’t there,” she said.
As a political science student at Binghamton University in New York, Downs struggled with the task of processing her own veteran’s benefits. At a generally liberal college, she felt isolated as a military veteran. She sat in the back of the classroom and didn’t get involved in extracurricular activities.
“Times are changing,” she said. “Universities across the country are definitely stepping up their game realizing we have to have support services such as the Office of Veterans Services here at USF.”
The 30-year-old Ph.D. candidate in anthropology served 7 years in the Air Force and Air National Guard, with three deployments to Iraq.
She started her doctoral program in 2011, and last year, she became involved with the USF chapter of Student Veterans of America. She hopes to raise $50,000 for that 800-branch organization.
“What we have is a group of dedicated, highly-motivated student veterans on the ground who are working to change state and national policy, and affect policy issues,” she said. One accomplishment: The group pushed hard for Florida legislation that allows veterans to pay in-state tuition at public universities, a campaign they are now taking national.
Downs said SVA also provides the social support and advocacy she missed in New York. On Thursday, members of the USF chapter gathered in support as Downs discussed her upcoming trip with the media.
“It’s going to be an awesome experience for Kiersten,” said Raymond Mollison, head of USF’s student veterans group. “It’s a dream she’s always wanted to come true, and it has.”
Downs started indoor cycling as an undergrad to relieve stress. She took up mountain biking in upstate New York, and road biking once she moved to Tampa. Two years ago, she was certified as an indoor cycling instructor, and puts in as many as 200 miles a week outdoors.
She’s not nervous about the ride, which will start June 1 and take her from California through the Nevada desert, the mountains of Colorado, with a swing through the South and up to the nation’s capital on Aug. 4.
“The bike ride is going to be the easiest part,” she said. “The hard part is raising awareness, raising media attention, sending out the message. This bike ride is the way I can combine three of my passions: bike riding, advocating for higher education and advocating for student veterans.”
She’s already having some success on that front. Recently, a crew from MTV surprised Downs with the news she would be appearing on the “Random Act of mtvU,” a feature of MTV’s college-oriented channel. The crew came bearing gifts: a camera, a GPS device, and a $1,000 gas card for the support crew that will accompany her.
Host Carly — no last name — also brought and displayed a message from actor-musician Nick Cannon, who told Downs he would promote her cause on social media and mtvU would chronicle her adventure.
“I’m just looking forward to going,” Downs said Wednesday. “This is a dream.”
. To view the mtvU video, see