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The Purchase Impact: Brittny Cooper ’15

From PAST Trips to the Ride of Her Life

Last June, Brittny Cooper ’15 (graphic design) dipped the back tire of her road bike into the Atlantic Ocean in Portsmouth, NH and began a 4,160-mile cycling trip across the northern United States, stopping only to volunteer on 13 affordable housing projects along the way.

Seventy-six days later, she and the 26 other riders on her Bike and Build team arrived in Bellingham, WA, having raised money and awareness for the issue of affordable housing. But reaching the Pacific Ocean only marked the beginning of Cooper’s next life chapter. 

Service Travel Bug

During her junior year, the Saratoga area native responded to an email inviting students on a Purchase Alternative Service Trip (PAST) to New Orleans, LA to volunteer with Project Lazarus. The experience ignited dual passions: for affordable housing advocacy and service travel. One trip turned into another and her interest and involvement grew. Then she planned a PAST trip to Philadelphia. “Purchase was a big catalyst for my getting into this. Finding the PAST trips, I guess I can say, changed my life.”

Brittny Cooper '15 From Subway Aversion to Cycle Enthusiasm

Cooper moved to New York City following graduation and hated using the subway. She bought a road bike, and cycling soon became her main source of transportation. “I just kind of fell in love with it,” she says. On a whim, Cooper Googled “service cycling trips.” This serendipitously led her to Bike and Build, the organization that offers service-oriented cycling trips to advocate for affordable housing. “It’s a perfect combination,” she says. 

In the summer of 2017, she participated in Bike and Build’s Drift West trip, pedaling 950 miles from Portland, Ore. to Bellingham, WA. The 25-day journey included six “build” days. The experience prompted her to take on a bigger challenge—the Northern U.S. trip.

With only one official day off the entire summer—during which she and the team hiked 10 miles into Glacier National Park and swam out to stand on icebergs—she’s surprised by what the mind and body can endure when you take things one day at a time. Biking all day with 26 strangers on five hours of sleep was not easy at first. “But as time went on, it became the norm and made me realize that you can adapt to anything with enough time and patience,” she says.

Cooper came away from the experience with a much better understanding of the affordable housing issue. She values the conversations she was able to have with those most affected. “I often felt that I gained far more from the experience than I was able to give back.” She came to realize how intertwined the affordable housing issue is with other major concerns such as health care and wealth inequality. But she has hope. “We have the means, as a country, to mitigate poverty, but there are many parts of the machine that perpetuate it.”

Long Distance Leap of Faith

Last summer’s ride also marked a huge transition: Cooper quit her job and moved to the West Coast using Bike and Build “as a jumping off point.” With the big trip behind her, Cooper continued to travel—biking from Astoria, OR. to Eureka, CA, sleeping outdoors and eating cold chili. She did some WWOOFing—that is, participating in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—at a cranberry farm in Oregon. After a stop in Berkeley, CA, she flew off to Hawaii to WWOOF on a macadamia nut and coffee farm. She’d also begun some freelance graphic design work along the way. “I’m not sure exactly where I’ll eventually settle, but I’m loving Northern California!” Wherever she ends up, she’ll continue to freelance and learn about and volunteer for the causes she cares about.

—Kristi McKee