Students marshal physical strength and humanitarian spirit for cross-country journey

04/27/16 – BOSTON, MA. – Robin Li, E’18, Carly Krotowski AMD’16, and Kamila Widulinski AMD’16 pose for a portrait in The Back Bay Fens on April 27, 2016. The trio will be biking across the country this summer as part of the organization Bike and Build. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Last summer, Robin Li was biking in Boston when his front tire hit a pothole, causing him to fall and dislocate his left shoulder. He underwent outpatient surgery to repair the damage but developed a blood clot in his right leg one week later, forcing him to return to the hospital. During his stay, he pondered his mortality, questioning whether he would even survive the complication. As he recalls, “There were so many ‘what-ifs’ running through my mind. There were moments when I thought I was going to die.”

The near-death experience put his life in perspective, he says, and shaped his future outlook. “Life is short,” he thought to himself, “and I want to go on a lot of adventures and make an impact on other people’s lives before it’s too late.”

This summer, Li will make good on his pledge, biking from coast to coast while building affordable housing along the route. He is one of three Northeastern University students who will be participating in the experience through the aptly titled Bike and Build program, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness of the importance of low-income housing.

Li, E’18, Carly Krotowski, AMD’16, and Kamila Widulinski, AMD’16, will bike from Providence, Rhode Island, to Seattle, a 4,000-mile journey covering 15 states in 10 weeks. The trio will bike up to 100 miles per day, traveling through the Catskills, the Badlands, and the Cascade Range en route to the Emerald City.

The trip will include more than a dozen so-called build days, in which the young humanitarians will help local affordable housing nonprofits build homes for deserving families. Their responsibilities will run the gamut, covering everything from painting to landscaping.

‘An amazing opportunity to give back’

All three students say that Northeastern has prepared them for this unique opportunity. “I’m a hands-on person and love to build stuff,” says Li, a third-year mechanical engineering major and the treasurer of Northeastern’s chapter of Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society. “Northeastern has shaped me into a very experienced problem solver.” Notes Widulinski, a fifth-year architecture major who took a studio art class in Germany on urban housing in Berlin: “I feel that this is an amazing opportunity to give back as well as grow personally after spending so much time studying the problems related to housing in the architecture program. I have a strong interest in using my knowledge to help fix this issue across the U.S.”

According to the MacArthur Foundation’s 2015 How Housing Matters survey, housing affordability is a persistent problem plaguing millions of Americans. More than half of the survey’s 1,400 respondents reported making at least one sacrifice or trade-off in the past three years in order to cover their rent or mortgage. One in five found an additional job or worked more, 17 percent stopped saving for retirement, and 12 percent cut back on purchasing healthy food.

As Li notes, “Providing people with affordable housing relieves a huge financial burden placed on many low-income families and will restore their confidence.”

Li, Krotowski, and Widulinski have been tasked with raising $4,500 and com­pleting 500 miles of training prior to the start of the 10-​​week ride. Every dollar raised will be put toward the program’s affordable housing projects, which will be completed in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity, Rebuilding Together, YouthBuild, or other small community nonprofits.

In preparation for the cross-country cycling trip, all three students participated in Boston’s Midnight Marathon Bike Ride, an annual tradition in which cyclists bike the Boston Marathon route in the wee hours before the race. Li is an experienced Marathon runner and an avid participant in the November Project, a free fitness program co-founded by Northeastern alumni Brogan Graham and Bojan Man­daric, both AS’06. For him, Bike and Build is just the latest chance to test his physical limits and experience the beauty of the great outdoors.

“After hiking Mount Washington last summer, I got to the top and thought ‘wow,’ the world is so beautiful,’” he says. “Why do I get stressed out about exams when there is so much more to life, so many things to see?”