Support for Veterans
USF student Kiersten Downs will bike cross-country this summer to support student veterans and the USF chapter of SVA.
Kiersten Downs plans to bike from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. this summer to raise money for veterans. Photo: Bryce Moseley Photography
By Brandi Hollis
TAMPA, Fla. (Jan. 31, 2013) – Kiersten Downs is going the extra mile for Student Veterans of America – 3,815 extra miles to be exact.
Downs, president of the University of South Florida chapter of Student Veterans of America, will be hopping on her bike this summer and pedaling on a two-month cross-country ride that will take her from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. All to raise awareness about and support veterans who are transitioning into campus life.
“I believe in the mission of Student Veterans of America wholeheartedly,” said Downs. “I want to accomplish this.”
Downs will only take her new aluminum frame bike and about 30 lbs. of gear on her journey, just what she can carry with her. She’ll use national parks as stops along her way for camping overnight and her iPhone to keep an eye on the weather.
“I do like to camp, I don’t have many reservations about that,” said Downs, “I’m pretty well connected with technology and equipment to make sure I’m prepared and safe.”
Downs’ idea to join her “bucket list” longing to ride cross-country with her passion for bringing awareness to student veterans came after getting involved with aiding student veterans here at USF. Downs served in the Air Force for seven years, with three deployments and one tour in Iraq. Her own experience of a difficult transition into college life, with no resource on campus to connect with other veterans, inspired her to work for veterans returning to school.
“The transition for veterans is very similar to an immigrant leaving their home country and moving to the United States,” said Downs. “It’s culture shock. This transition can be lonely, people can isolate themselves. It can be difficult on these huge college campuses to find other veterans who have shared experiences. This is where the Student Veterans Association really comes into play. When we give veterans the proper support they need, they excel above all of their peers. There’s this drive, there’s motivation, there’s just this unbridled potential to move forward.”
Just 6 months ago, Downs took the post of president of the USF chapter and she is already moving the organization forward with new ideas and a determination to find resources for veterans on campus. Downs’ cross country bike ride will be part fundraiser to help the national chapter, but will also give the USF chapter 15 percent of total donations. The chapter will use the donations to host more events and bring more awareness about veterans to the student population.
Downs has been busy since heading up the USF chapter. She has helped secure grants from USF Student Government, initiated weekly events for the USF chapter and worked to restructure the official procedures of the chapter.
In February, the chapter will launch a partnership with the USF Office of Veterans Services and the national organization “Got your 6,” to design a curriculum for a campus support network where professional faculty and staff are trained on the resources available for their veteran students. The curriculum that is designed at USF will be the pilot program used at other universities.
Larry Braue, director of Office of Veterans Services, credits Downs with making a big difference on campus.
“Since she came on board, our SVA has grown exponentially. We have people that are now engaged,” Braue said.
During the holiday break, Downs and USF chapter vice president Sean Sorbie presented a business proposal at their national conference in Orlando. They proposed a new structure and budget for the USF chapter and identified the goals the USF chapter hopes to achieve. USF was recognized along with Forsyth Technical Community College, Northeastern University and Arizona State University for their enterprising ideas. Each was awarded a $1,500 grant to implement the plans for their respective chapters.
“She’s been out there meeting people and finding connections, and finding these things and researching,” Braue said of Downs applying for the national grant. “She did it all pretty much on her own, with help from her vice president Sean Sorbie.”
Not only did the national headquarters recognize the merits of the USF chapter’s business proposal, Downs was also nominated to serve next year on the national leadership council for the SVA. She will advise Michael Dakduk, executive director of the SVA, as well as be a representative to Congress and the media for student veteran needs and concerns.
Braue said: “We’ve never had the national recognition that we’ve gotten since she came on board. It’s great for the school, it’s great for veterans.”
The USF chapter was started in 2009 and is one of more than 600 such organizations on campuses across the country affiliated with Student Veterans of America. There are approximately 1,700 student veterans at USF and Downs said the students involved with the Student Veterans Association “are leaders. They are incredible, they are motivated, and especially now after going to this conference they’re ready to do this.”
Downs wants the new mission of the USF chapter to engage faculty, students and student veterans because student veterans have so much to offer to the campus community.
“We want to be the strongest student veterans association in the country,” said Downs.
Visit the Students Veteran’s Association website to learn more here.
Visit Kiersten Downs’ cross country trip website here.
Visit the Student Veterans Association Facebook page here.