Kiersten Downs has worked as an indoor cycling instructor and has always envisioned cycling across the country.
This summer, Downs, president of the USF Student Veterans Association (SVA) and a doctoral student at USF, will cycle from San Francisco to Washington D.C. — a total distance of about 3,000 miles — to raise money for SVA.
When Downs was working on her undergraduate degree, she was called to serve time in the armed forces.
She served in the Air Force for four years and the New York Air National Guard for three. Her duties included three tours in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“I did a part-time guard program while in college,” Downs said. “I went on tour in the middle of my junior year.”
When she came back to Binghamton University after her tour in 2007 to complete her junior year, Downs said she was disappointed to see there was no office to help student veterans reintegrate into academia.
“When I came back, everything was a mess,” Downs said. “Back in ’06 and ’07, schools didn’t have the
services for vets that they have now.”
Downs moved to Tampa in 2011 to pursue a doctorate degree in anthropology
“I was impressed by USF’s veteran services,” she said. “I was especially impressed by the peer-run organization for student veterans.”
Downs planned the cross-country cycling trip as a fundraiser for SVA. She said all of her expenses are out-of-pocket, but all proceeds she collects via her website will be donated to the national SVA chapter, with 15 percent donated to the USF chapter.
“I used to mountain bike all the time when I lived in upstate New York,” Downs said. “I always wanted to get into road biking, so I bought a road bike and got hooked.”
Downs said she cycles three or four times a week, indoors and outdoors, and other physically active veterans have helped her with workout plans for her journey.
“A lot of other vets have heard about this trip,” Downs said. “They do what they can to help me train.”
Downs said if she bikes about 70 to 110 miles every day, with a rest day once a week, her trip will take about two months. She will start on the first day of June, leaving from San Francisco, where she attended an SVA conference at the Google Headquarters last year.
“I fell in love with San Francisco,” she said. “Plus, that whole experience was just inspiring for me. Meeting all those other vets there was life-changing. That’s why I’m starting my ride there.”
The SVA headquarters in Washington D.C. will be the endpoint of Downs’ journey. She said she will make stops along the way to meet some of her supporters, fellow student veterans and for media interviews.
“I’ve had fellow veterans offer to let me stay at their homes and to feed me,” Downs said. “We’re a close-knit group of people.”
Sean Sorbie, vice president of SVA at USF, said Downs’ trip will be a great way to raise awareness of veterans’ issues.
“When someone does something like this for a cause, it gets a lot of media attention,” Sorbie said. “And as a fellow cyclist, I’m jealous. It’s every cyclist’s dream to ride across the country.”
Downs said her mother, a nurse, will drive a support vehicle alongside.
Amanda Alexander, a senior majoring in biology, is an active member of SVA at USF. Alexander said her parents both served in the military and that she supports Downs on her trip.
“I think it’s the most wonderful thing she could do,” Alexander said. “She loves cycling and being a veteran, so this is perfect.”
Downs said people have asked if she is worried or afraid of running into trouble along the way.
“I don’t get wrapped up in this culture of fear,” she said. “People need to learn to trust each other again. I’m not afraid.”