With April upon us, students are beginning to lock in their summer plans. Internships, volunteer work, even jobs for some lucky seniors.
Not only do Kevin Pham ’18 and Gabrielle Pollack ’17 already know what their vacations will look like, but they’ve already begun preparing for them—or rather, training for them. Starting in June, they will bike from New Haven, Conn. to Half Moon Bay, Calif. And as if biking 4,066 miles in 80 days isn’t physically exhausting enough, along the way they will build homes, give biking workshops and make presentations on affordable housing, all part of the Bike & Build program.
“I thought it would be nice for the summer of my freshman year to do something that’s not related to my career path and will expose me to a new skill,” said Pham, who is an International Studies major. He said he was also drawn to Bike & Build because it departs from the typical nine-to-five internship behind a desk.
Pham isn’t the sort to do anything typical. Before he came to Vassar he took a gap year in Ecuador, an experience he said—admitting this was a cliché—was life-changing. “I started valuing doing activities and programs that I don’t really have any background in. Studying abroad made me more open to the possibilities of studying different fields or different kinds of work,” said Pham. Additionally, he joked, it made everyone’s expectations for him much higher. When he told his friends and family, Pham said they found it largely unsurprising that he chose to spend his summer in an unconventional way. “A lot of my friends were kind of surprised but not surprised. When I took the gap year it set the standard pretty high for the things I would do in the future. They were like, ‘That’s something Kevin would do, diving into something he knows nothing about,’” he said.
This is mostly true—Pham estimated that the longest he has ever biked is five miles. Over spring break, Pham had just purchased a new bike and all of the equipment he will need to go with it, all covered by a scholarship he received from the program. (He also did some independent fundraising: He and his mother raised $800 selling homemade eggrolls door-to-door. He rolled them, she cooked them.) As the weather gets warmer, he said he will switch from running at the gym to hitting the trails around Vassar on his new bike.
Pollack has had more experience, but said she still has a while to go before she’s ready for her summer trip. “I’ve biked around 50 miles before,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “But that was four years ago.”
Bike & Build Director of Operations and Outreach Justin Villere noted that though Bike & Build, a program with an application process, doesn’t require its candidates to be experienced cyclists, they do take steps to ensure everyone’s safety on the road. “All riders are required to train at least 500 miles on the road before the trip begins. This both helps to prepare them physically as well as [make] them feel comfortable interacting with vehicles on the road,” he said, going on to add that their riders must also pass a safety quiz. But beyond these logistics, he said Bike & Build looks first and foremost for youthful enthusiasm.
“While we certainly welcome experienced cyclists, we are primarily interested in engaging young adults who have a passion for service and adventure,” said Villere.
Like Pham, Pollack said she was looking to spend her summer doing something beyond the scope of her major. “I’m a pre-med neuroscience student and have done research and worked with hospital patients for the past couple of summers. I wanted a change as I know [that’s what I’ll be doing] for the rest of my life,” she said. Even so, she said that she sees her experiences with Bike & Build as being relevant in the future. “I want to be a pediatrician mainly in underprivileged areas, so it definitely relates in some ways,” said Pollack, continuing, “I also want to learn more about affordable housing and see how I can get involved in more ways.”
Pham has gotten a jumpstart on this part of the trip. Over break, Pham was in Atlanta, GA., with Vassar’s Habitat for Humanity. He said he did a little painting, put up some scaffolding. Pham’s stepdad worked part-time helping people fix up their houses, so he would sometimes go to help out. From the D.C. area, Pham wrote in his Bike & Build bio that he hopes the summer program will inspire him to make a difference in his own backyard. “One in five D.C. residents have severe affordability problems and spend 50 percent or more of their income on housing,” he wrote.
Villere noted that many of students who participate in the program go on to make change in communities off the beaten Bike & Build path. “About 70 percent [of our alumni] indicate that they are still involved in some form of public service with their career or through longterm volunteerism efforts,” he said. Since he began working with the organization in 2012 they have granted over $1.7 million to affordable housing affiliates across the U.S. and have built hundreds of homes.
As for Pollack, she has an idea of what to anticipate from her Bike & Build trip. She wrote, “I want to learn to push myself…both physically and mentally. I also want to learn more about affordable housing and see how I can get involved in more ways [as well as] establish long-lasting friendships and bonds.”
Pham said he counts on the experience being an enriching one on all counts, but he’s going to wait to see how it unfolds. “I like to go in with an open mind about what I would gain….I would hope to continue to be involved with affordable housing after my trip and get more involved with Habitat for Humanity at Vassar,” he said. Pham, too, has a simpler wish in mind when considering his cross-country trek: “Hopefully, these skinny little legs don’t fail me!”