April 25, 2014
By Barbara Hein
Kristin Sweetman and Katie Stern formed a friendship in the seats of the Link Bus as they traveled between the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John's University campuses each day of their first semester at college.
So it seems fitting that these 2008 CSB graduates are taking their friendship back out on the road April 28, as they begin a seven-month trek across all 50 U.S. states. They are also planning volunteer projects in each state they visit.
"On the first day of the semester, we were both heading over to Saint John's for class and we were both nervous as first-year students," recalled Sweetman, a management major. "We rode over together and then met up after class and rode back. It became our routine and then we started hanging out."
The idea for hanging out again as they visit all 50 states began with Sweetman. It was something she had started thinking about after leaving full-time employment and trying to decide what the next step in life was going to be. After tossing it around in her head for a couple of months, she approached Stern.
"Kristin came to me and said 'I have something that is going to change your life,' and I was like 'Oh gosh, what are you going to tell me,' " said Stern, who majored in chemistry at CSB.
The self-proclaimed planner started thinking about all the reasons she couldn't take this adventure — her job as a chemist at General Mills, her boyfriend of four years and her family in Minnesota. Then she talked to her parents.
"They were so supportive," Stern said. "They told me I would regret it if I didn't do this."
Both Sweetman and Stern knew they wanted to make this trip about more than just touching the corner of every state.
"It's about connecting with the incredible people, places, cultures and activities that make each state so special," Sweetman said. "Meeting people and getting to know people you wouldn't otherwise know is the best part about traveling."
As a way of giving back to the people and communities they will visit in each state, they decided to add another element to their trip. They will be volunteering with non-profits in each state.
In early April, Sweetman and Stern did a 'test run' — visiting Fargo, N.D., for three days. While there, they volunteered with the Humane Society, but quickly learned that it works best to have the volunteer project set up ahead of time so that all the paperwork and details are finalized before they arrive. As a result of that test run, Sweetman and Stern have been busy setting up those volunteer activities in the rest of the states before beginning their trek.
"In one state, we will be participating in the M.S. Walk — as greeters for the participants. In other states we will be helping with feeding the elderly, working with United Way, feeding the homeless, volunteering at organic farms and cleaning up highways," Sweetman said.
"We want to see what makes America great and what a good way to do that by giving back to the people that made America this way," Stern added.
General Mills has given Stern a leave of absence from her job and she can't wait to hit the open road.
"I'm so excited about this trip," Stern said. "It will be a perfect time for me to reflect on what I want to do next. I know this trip is going to change my life."
"I think the volunteering will be humbling," Sweetman said. "I'm really looking forward to it. When I quit my job, this was one of the things I wanted to focus on. When I made more money, I spent a lot more money. I wanted to adopt a more minimalistic life style. Seeing people in need puts life into perspective. I think we're going to develop a lot personally as individuals."
As far as travel plans and living arrangements, the women have some things lined up but are also trying to stay flexible. They will be connecting with friends from CSB along the way and plan to be in Denver to coincide with the marriage of one of their Bennie friends. And, they already have their plane tickets purchased for Alaska and Hawaii, so those legs of the trip are firm.
"We know it's going to be hard. We are going to miss our families. We may get tired of each other sometimes. But we also know this is the perfect time for us to do this and are really excited about the possibilities," Sweetman said.
"Even if we have a bad experience in every state, I'm going to come back learning something and that will help me continue on and give me strength in other areas and help us grow," Stern added.
Sweetman and Stern leave for their trip on April 28. If you would like to follow along with their adventures, they have set up a website and blog at www.chasing50trip.com.