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Cross-country cycling with a focus on service

A group of Northeastern students and alumni spent the summer cycling across the United States for Bike & Build, a nonprofit organization in which teams of more than two dozen bikers build homes along their route through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity.

Cyclists Dustin Tran and Diane Pham, both 2012 graduates of the university’s pharmacy program, 2009 graduate Matthew Shingler, 2010 graduate Heather Gardiner, 2012 graduate Shannon Brown and seniors Sean Reilly and Rachel DeBaun participated, tasked with raising $4,500 and completing 500 miles of training prior to the start of the 10-week ride.

Neither Tran nor Pham were expert cyclists prior to their cross-country trek — Tran biked from Providence to Seattle, Pham from Vermont to Vancouver — but they quickly developed the strength and skills they needed to complete their journey.

They picked up vital skills for working at the build sites, too. “When you have 31 people at a site, you can really get a lot of things done very quickly,” Tran said.

For him, the cause was uniquely personal. “I grew up in a Boston Housing Authority unit — pretty much the projects,” Tran explained. “So this cause was very dear to me.”

Bikers rode an average of 70 miles per day, but the longest ride spanned 116 miles, according to Pham. They lodged in church basements and high-school gymnasiums — pretty much any spot that was cost effective and accessible.

Hosts, Pham said, were welcoming and gracious, providing potluck dinners and friendly conversation at each stop. Every dollar not spent on accommodations was put toward the program’s affordable-housing projects.

Pham said it was initially hard to absorb the magnitude of the trip, owing to its sheer mileage and service components. For both bikers, though, reality started to sink in once they reached the West Coast.

“When we first saw the Pacific,” Pham said, “we were just in shock. The feeling was as if you’d won the lottery — you’re really happy, but you still kind of don’t believe it.”

Now that they have completed Northeastern’s six-year pharmacy program and Bike & Build’s 10-week summer program, both Pham and Tran are looking forward to the next phases of their lives.

Tran is in the process of moving to Oregon, where he plans to find a job in the pharmacy field. Pham, for her part, is spending the next few months in South America before pursuing a career in public health.

But both said they hope to complete the Bike & Build program again, noting its transformative experience.

“The 30 other people on my trip became my new family,” Tran said. “Even after the first week, it was like I knew these people for years. So having it end? That was bittersweet.”