Kiersten Downs was sitting in a Feminist Research Methods class when MTV called, wondering about her one-woman bike ride across America.
Downs was thrilled. Any attention would help the University of South Florida doctoral student and her cause. She was financing a bike trip out of her own pocket to benefit Student Veterans of America. She had saved enough to get 3,800 miles from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., and she still needed a $600 GPS to guide the way. She planned to figure it out as she went.
MTV wanted to spotlight the ride for its college channel, mtvU, the producer said. The segment would be short. Four minutes.
An MTV crew came to campus last week. Downs talked on camera about helping veterans get back to school and rode her bike around USF. She taught an indoor cycling class at the USF gym. The wheels were spinning, cameras rolling.
Then the door burst open.
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Downs was 18 when she chose the military.
She had an adventurous spirit and not much direction. She lived in Friendsville, Pa., population 111. She imagined seeing the world, doing something physical. She went to a military recruiting office and joined the Air Force in June 2001.
Three months later, before reporting for duty, she sat on a couch with her mother and watched terrorists attack the World Trade Center. Her mother's eyes rimmed with water. Downs would be in this for the long run.
She spent four years on active duty in the Air Force, traveling the world. She took in everything around her and found herself wanting to know more about politics, how the world worked, how to develop critical thinking skills. Maybe college was for her.
Downs transitioned to the Air National Guard in New York in 2005. She worked on a political science degree at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In her junior year she deployed to Iraq for four months, working 12-hour days in the desert and bunking with colleagues in close quarters.
When she came back, she tended bar and waited tables. She worked out. She boxed. She felt isolated, as if she had no identity as a civilian.
She thought about not finishing school. She was making good money, and classes did not come easy. She was used to writing in acronyms for the military. Writing a 20-page English paper wasn't natural.
"When I caught myself thinking I wasn't smart enough, that I didn't have the capacity to get this far, that's when you surround yourself with the power of positive thinking," said Downs, now 30. "That's when you surround yourself with people that believe in you."
About 1,700 veterans go to USF. They're typically older, often the first in their families to go to college. They're ripped from regimentation and camaraderie into a campus lifestyle that can feel lonesome and strange.
"They're mission-oriented, task-oriented; deadlines need to be met," said Tony Rivera, assistant director for USF's Office of Veterans Services, which helps students register and get through the benefits process. "While they're taking military school classes, paying attention is key. There's no talking, no Facebook, no texting. They come to the college campus, where it's a little more relaxed."
They start to question their bigger purpose in life.
"A lot of folks join the military to have that sense of service, that sense of giving back to your country," said Matthew Feger, director of development for Student Veterans of America in Washington, D.C. "When you separate, there's really a void in that kind of realm. What is my next mission?"
Downs said she found a mentor and leaned on her family. She earned a master's degree from Nova Southeastern University and worked in the New York office of U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey. In 2011, she was accepted into an applied anthropology Ph.D program at USF. She packed her Nissan Frontier and drove to Tampa.
She became president of USF's chapter of Student Veterans of America, organizing meetings, weekly runs and fitness camps for student veterans, providing a network for people like herself. She helped USF create a curriculum for professors and staff, outlining challenges student veterans face. She focused her academic research on reintegration.
"I'm a very strong advocate for higher education," she said. "I think we as a country need to focus on the cost of education. It's getting ridiculous. It's getting out of control. We need to focus on our veterans benefits. … We need to provide them with support, advocacy and resources needed, and then get them jobs."
She hadn't really had a vacation in 12 years. It would be nice to take a bike ride this summer, she thought, just herself and a 30-pound backpack on two wheels.
Still, she could not shake the thought that her trip could double as a great fundraiser for SVA. She set a goal to raise $50,000 online and on the road. All the money would go to SVA, with 15 percent to USF's chapter.
She woke before 7 a.m. most days to train in the gym or on the 7-mile loop at Flatwoods Park in Tampa. She started publicizing her ride, which starts June 1.
She thought that would be it.
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Last week in the cycling gym, a woman burst through the door. Downs thought it was a student who wanted to get on camera.
It was actually an mtvU host, and her arms were loaded with duffel bags for Downs. Rapper and actor Nick Cannon appeared on the big screen in the room and congratulated her, promising to help her with the most valuable currency of all — social media promotion. He said mtvU would document her bike ride.
Downs learned that the moment would be part of a show called Random Acts of mtvU, where deserving college students are rewarded.
The host handed her a GoPro camera and a $1,000 gift card for gas so that Downs' mother could ride beside her in a support car.
And inside a bag, there was that Garmin GPS she needed to find her way to Washington, D.C..
Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394.