Bike donation project inspires transportation initiatives

By EMILY De WAARD Managing Editor

A group of international students are getting around town much easier now with bicycles repaired and donated to them by their instructor.

Second-year graduate student Semehar Ghebrekidan taught two culture classes this summer to English as a Second Language (ESL) students and quickly noticed a shared struggle among her students.

She said her students complained of walking to class in the intense heat, and they couldn’t get around town easily without a ride from a friend, which is difficult in the summer with fewer students in Brookings or on campus.

“When they walked to buy groceries their food would spoil in the heat before they got back,” Ghebrekidan said. “I kept wondering what I could do. So I did a Facebook post asking people for old bikes they didn’t need anymore.”

Many YouTube tutorials later, Ghebrekidan fixed her first bicycle. Soon, she was fixing crank arms, brakes and pedals, and making the bikes rust-free so they looked new again. 

Ghebrekidan worked on bicycles throughout the summer in front of West Hall and inside her apartment. 

To move them from place to place, she loaded them in the back of her small car, fitting only one at a time.

“I didn’t have a car until August last year, so I understood exactly how my students felt,” Ghebrekidan said. “I managed to fix one and it worked, so I just did more and I managed to fix eight or nine bikes; so now all the full-time students have a bike.”

Ghebrekidan fixed all the bikes out-of-pocket, finding used parts at Bluestem Bicycles to cut costs. 

She also bought an air pump to keep in the Office of International Affairs for students. 

“They definitely don’t take it for granted,” Ghebrekidan said. “And I’ve had the satisfaction of seeing them ride their bikes around town. I just wanted to do something nice for them because I really sympathized with them and knew how they felt.”

Co-owner of Bluestem, Caleb Evenson, worked with Ghebrekidan a handful of times as she repaired the bikes.

“The first time she came in looking for a used part, she needed this saddle and I gave it to her for free because I just liked that she was trying to help international students,” Evenson said.

Ghebrekidan said each time she fixed a bike she had it checked for safety at Bluestem. 

Bluestem offers a variety of repair services, as well as custom building, and they have also held workshops for the community — something Evenson hopes to continue.

He strongly advocates for bicycle sharing programs and encourages people to attend events like the Monday night ride.

Groups on campus and in the community have tried to form bike sharing organizations in the past, but have been unsuccessful, and that’s something Ghebrekidan hopes to change.

During her terms as a Students’ Association senator, she said, her constituents, international students, were her priority. 

Though she has stepped away from SA, Ghebrekidan hopes to work with senators like Irakoze Naftari to draft a resolution for some form of a transportation program.

Naftari, junior public relations and business economics major, said he is part of a collaborative effort to establish public transportation to and from campus for all.

“Semehar’s project, I think was a great step toward better programs for students,” Naftari said. “I loved it when I first heard about it; I was excited and wanted to help however I can.”

With collaboration between Bata Bus and Jefferson Lines, Naftari said the project is still in the idea stages, but his efforts with Kas Williams, program adviser for African-American programs in the Multicultural Center, and Nathan Ziegler, director of inclusion, diversity and equity, are in progress and they are “open to any ideas.”

A transportation system for students and faculty is “not a want anymore, it is a need,” Naftari said. “We have heard a lot of cries for it, and I know we will find a way.”