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USF cross-country cyclist named Student Veteran of the Year

TAMPA — She hoped to ride her bike, raise about 10 grand and maybe scare up a little publicity.

But after two months, 3,800 miles, $50,000 in pledges and a slew of attention to veterans’ issues in the transition from military to campus life, the University of South Florida’s Kiersten Downs has become the toast of student vets.

“I think it’s going to take me a long time to process the entire thing,” said Downs, who pedaled from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., last June and July. “It was such an incredible experience.”

The national Student Veterans of America group thought so, too, and last weekend named Downs Student Veteran of the Year at its annual conference in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I was completely surprised by it,” said the 31-year-old doctoral candidate in anthropology, who recently lost her grandfather and was unable to make the trip to Arizona. “The end of the year was really kind of a rough one, but 2014 started very nicely with the surprise of getting the award.”

Student Veterans of America provides returning vets with resources, support and advocacy to help them succeed in higher education. Downs served as president of the USF chapter last year, and she wanted to combine her passion for biking and student veterans’ issues with the event, which she called Bike America.

She blogged, tweeted, posted photos and met up with veterans who rode with her along stretches of the route. She garnered attention from actor-musician Nick Cannon on MTV, local television stations along the route, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast.

“She’s extremely ambitious, very driven,” said Larry Braue, director of veterans’ services at USF. “She’s highly motivated and really has a desire to achieve.”

USF has been recognized for the assistance it provides its 1,700 military-affiliated students. Military Times magazine named USF the fourth-friendliest university in the nation to veterans, and several students hold prestigious Tillman Scholarships, named for Pat Tillman, the former National Football League player killed in Afghanistan.

Downs hails from Endicott, N.Y., and served seven years in the Air Force and Air National Guard, with three deployments to Iraq.

In Arizona, the student vets honored Downs and, separately, a team from the University of Colorado-Denver in a business plan competition.

“These awardees epitomize the characteristics of student veterans,” said SVA chief executive D. Wayne Robinson. “They’ve devoted themselves to academic success and work tirelessly to ensure that their fellow vets join them on stage at commencement. Not only are they going to graduate, but each has galvanized their school to become more supportive of that vision.”

With the bike ride behind her, Downs said she’s “hoping to switch gears.” She’s finished the course work she needs for her degree, is taking qualifying exams for her dissertation and is starting her own research. She is working on a federal research project on youth suicide prevention and intends to focus on issues such as military suicide and sexual trauma.

She still hasn’t seen her award; fellow SVA members from USF accepted it for her and want to have a local event to hand it over.

“Just looking back on all that,” Downs said, “all the hard work that was involved, I just sit back in disbelief.”

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com / (813) 259-7834

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