With her Missouri S&T college degree in hand and a nice job awaiting her, Rachel Birchmeier left campus to embrace a summer of flat tires, aching muscles and sleeping in horse manure.
Birchmeier volunteered for Bike and Build, a gathering of college students from across America who bicycled from coast to coast along nine different routes and built affordable housing at selected stops. Birchmeier’s group built parts of nine homes along the 3,600-mile journey from North Carolina to San Diego.
“The hardest part was being mixed in with 20 different people and trying to make decisions together,” says Birchmeier, a May 2012 nuclear engineering graduate. The group averaged about 70 miles each day before teaming with local Habitat for Humanity staff and low-income homeowners to do everything from pouring foundations to hammering roof shingles.
“Laying a foundation was like putting LEGO blocks together,” Birchmeier adds. “You think of house building as so complicated, but it isn’t.”
What was complicated was the endless pedaling through mountains and deserts.
“The hardest days that stick out were when things went wrong,” Birchmeier recalls. “I rode 90 miles through the desert in 100-plus degrees. There was no water and no civilization. The whole time, I thought, ‘This is so awful.’”
And there was a “Rocky Mountain High” as they crossed the Colorado mountains.
“We rode 2 mph for six hours. One girl cried when she got to the top because it was such an empowering experience. You earned the view,” Birchmeier says.
But while they were building a home in Colorado Springs, Colo., Birchmeier watched helplessly from a valley as wildfires consumed homes in the mountains above. “I had a 360-degree view of all the burning,” she recalls. “Seeing the houses burning brought tears to your eyes. I thought, ‘Why do I ever worry about anything?’”
But welcomed rains there also brought other hardships. Birchmeier and two male riders were caught under a thunderstorm and ducked into a barn. “We hid in a horse stall for four hours. I lay down and used horse manure as a pillow. That could easily ruin your day, but then I got nine flat tires that day. You have to roll with the punches,” Birchmeier says.
After 70 days of biking and 13 days of building, the group dismounted their matching Giant bicycles and bobbed in the Pacific Ocean in a group hug to celebrate.
Birchmeier then traded bike shorts for business attire and started her career at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory in New York where she designs nuclear-powered submarines for the U.S. Navy. She is already in a fast-track course for management while enrolled in a graduate program where she switches jobs every nine months.
“Throughout getting my degree, I have really learned how all the different avenues of engineering tie in,” she says. “I don’t feel like I just have a nuclear engineering degree, I feel like I can do anything.”