Twenty-two year-old Converse College senior Jess Lee is in training for the road trip of a lifetime. While her peers have hit the pavement looking for post-graduation job opportunities, Jess has been pumping iron and cycling around the streets of Spartanburg, SC for the sake of another cause.
“I’ve only been on a bike for a few weeks and while I’m new to cycling, I am more than ready to begin making a difference in the world.”
From Feb. 24 – March 6, Lee will ride a mountain bike more than 150 miles around the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro in a targeted effort to break the cycle of violence against women and girls in Africa. The trip to Tanzania is a project coordinated by globalbike, an international NGO committed to using the transformative power of bikes to create positive social change in developing worlds. Jess and the globalbike team will distribute more than 100 bicycles in five village communities around the mountain. At the end of their journey the group will share their travel stories with a delegation from the United Nations who will come together around the same issue and summit Kilimanjaro under the theme ‘Speak Out – Climb UP’
“I’ve only been on a bike for a few weeks and while I’m new to cycling, I am more than ready to begin making a difference in the world,” said Lee, a native of Orlando, FL.
Tanzania is ranked 4th in the world for domestic violence by the World Health Organization. More than half of Tanzanian women are estimated to have been beaten by their husbands, and 60% of women believe that wife beating is acceptable. Roughly 1 in 6 women have been subjected to genital mutilation. In the midst of this poverty-stricken region, where only 24% of the population has access to adequate sanitation facilities, the gift of a bicycle has far-reaching implications. A bicycle can provide freedom from oppression, the ability to earn a living, and a means to obtain healthcare.
Despite her youth, Lee knows all too well that poverty, isolation and abuse are serious global issues. “I grew up in government housing with a single mother who worked two and three jobs to make ends meet. We relied heavily on food pantries and the generosity of others just to get by. I always wanted to go to college but I didn’t actually think it could happen. My life changed when I was accepted to Converse. There’s something about being a product of a women’s college that engenders a deep-rooted commitment to social change. I have a passion for issues related to the challenges that face women and girls and now I have the chance to begin doing something about it.”
Lee will be traveling alongside a dozen community leaders from the Upstate of South Carolina, including Converse alumna and Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment Sally Jeter Hammond ’81, who has mentored her throughout the experience. Lee says despite their 30-year age difference the two have a similar story. “Sally knows of my interest in social entrepreneurship and encouraged me to make the trip. She is a single mom who understands what it takes to raise children without the help of a partner. Whether you’re fighting for your children in Africa or in America makes little difference. It’s what you do with that experience that matters. Sally and I have a chance to pay it forward, to take the strength we gained from the support of our respective communities and share it with communities of families in Africa.”
As she pedals through Africa, Lee will be pondering the weighty decision of where life will take her following graduation in May. She is among an elite group of America’s best and brightest who have been accepted by the Peace Corps to teach English to children in Sub-Saharin Africa. “One of the reasons I choose Converse was the sense that Converse women have no limits,” she said. “In all aspects of my Converse career I have been encouraged to explore my roots, learn of the world and create the future I want. With my love for people and desire to be a part of systems of change, I am looking forward to a career in developing international communities.”
As for her physical and mental challenge ahead on a bicycle, Lee says “I had never given cycling much thought — really any thought…ever. So I have found myself living in a whole new world recently. A world of good peddle strokes, clipping in-and-out (or rather not clipping out and falling), proper wrist position and adventure.”
Follow Jess and Sally via their blog as they travel to Tanzania.