Students complete cycling adventure

The Talent Search contingent from WCU visited numerous historic sites. The group is shown cycling through Antietam National Battlefield.

The Talent Search contingent from WCU visited numerous historic sites. The group is shown cycling through Antietam National Battlefield.

“This trip made my thoughts and dreams turn into reality.”

That’s how Erica Hicks, a rising senior at Andrews High School, describes “Cycle to Freedom,” a 325-mile bicycling adventure she recently completed along with other local high school students enrolled in Western Carolina University’s Talent Search Program.

The dozen students, representing Smoky Mountain, Hiwassee Dam, Andrews and Robbinsville high schools, and adult staff members from WCU’s program arrived back in Cullowhee on July 5 after cycling from Washington, D.C., to the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pa., on the Chesapeake & Ohio Towpath and Great Alleghany Passage Trail.

In addition to presenting the physical challenge of riding a bike upwards of 50 mile per day, the 12-day trip provided an opportunity for the teens to learn about the Underground Railroad and other milestones of American history, to visit American shrines in the nation’s capital, and to see Fourth of July fireworks and a professional baseball game in Pittsburgh.

“I had been very eager to go on the trip ever since I found out I had been picked to go. I had no idea how incredible it was going to be,” Hicks said.

“The thing that I liked best about the trip is that it provided a way for me to see the world beyond what I’m used to,” she said. With its emphasis on developing leadership skills, the Talent Search adventure “gave me a chance to learn my kind of natural leadership and find ways to improve it,” Hicks said.

The Talent Search students and adult staff visited shrines in Washington, D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial.

The Talent Search students and adult staff visited shrines in Washington, D.C., including the Lincoln Memorial.

Todd Murdock, director of WCU’s Talent Search Program, said the group stopped by historic sites related to the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves to escape to “free states” and Canada. Therese Murdock, a former teacher, and Jessie Nosworthy, a former Talent Search student and recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, led the group in lessons about that time in American history. Each student received a metal bracelet with the name of a runaway slave stamped onto it, along with that slave’s unique biography, and each student reported to the group about the slave’s plight. “It was pretty powerful,” Todd Murdock said. “These students now have a different perspective on social justice.”

While taking the students on a personal journey through American history, the trip also allowed them to learn about environmental issues, Murdock said. Prior to their departure on June 24, participants learned to make biodiesel fuel at Blue Ridge Biofuels in Asheville, and Murdock and Robbinsville High rising senior C.J. Williams assembled a bike with a frame made of bamboo cut from the Tuckaseigee River. Williams rode the bike the entire 325 miles.

“It held up fine throughout the whole trip,” Williams said, adding that the bike also got the attention of quite a few picture-taking tourists who were interested in the unconventional frame.

Williams said he enjoyed becoming friends with the other teens, and his favorite part of the trip was going into Pittsburgh for the Fourth of July. “The fireworks were amazing,” he said.

Another participating student, Jose Acevedo of Smoky Mountain High School, said he also enjoyed becoming friends with the others. “It was a really fun group. I made friends real quick,” said the rising 10th-grader. “We saw so many amazing things, it was mind-boggling.”

Talent Search is a federally funded program that WCU has hosted for 29 years. Students join the program in the seventh grade and the staff follows them through to their high school graduations, providing academic, career and financial aid counseling while encouraging the students to attend the post-secondary schools of their choice. One of the primary methods used by WCU’s program to help young people expand their horizons is outdoor adventure.

High school students who participate in the Talent Search program were eligible to apply for the trip, and the dozen students were chosen based on an essay they wrote. The trip was provided free to the teens, who camped out every night except one, and cooked their own meals.

Funding for the journey was provided through a grant from the Creating New Economies Fund of the Conservation Fund’s Resourceful Communities Program. The Creating New Economies Fund has received support this year from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center and the Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation.

Other participating students were Cori Green and Alex Madill of Smoky Mountain High; Kayla Farmer, Brandon Smith and Bryan Taylor of Hiwassee Dam High; Regan Jordan, Anna Purser and Zack Pyle of Andrews High; and Tyler Massey of Robbinsville High.

For more information about WCU’s Talent Search Program, contact Murdock at 828-227-7137.