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Washington and Lee University

Washington and Lee University
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Elliott O'Brien '10

Hometown: Te Awamutu, New Zealand

Majors: Politics, Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Shepherd Poverty Program and University Scholars.

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Team Traveller – W&L’s cycling team
  • Group Cycling Instructor
  • Nabors Service League
  • Bonner Leader
  • Phi Kappa Psi
  • 1 in 4
  • ACT
  • WLUR
  • General’s Cross Country
  • Outing Club Workstudy
  • Resident Advisor for First Year Students
  • Project Horizon

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • E.A. Morris Research Scholar with Professor Eduardo Velasquez in Lexington, VA during the summer of 2007 (for me that’s an internship abroad if you think about it…)
  • Shepherd Poverty Alliance International Internship with the Foundation for Sustainable Development in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the summer of 2008

Post-Graduation Plans: Post-graduate study in Latin American Studies and Public Policy, either in the US or in Latin America. Work in an NGO or IGO that is concerned with development in Latin America, at the policy level.

Favorite W&L Memory: My favourite W&L memory is probably the late night walks around the VMI parade ground with Professor Henry P. Porter. This introduction to history and all things W&L that began in my fall term, freshman year made a major impact on life on this campus. The opportunity to learn from and make lasting friendships with outstanding faculty outside of the classroom really makes the W&L experience for me.

Favorite Class: Choosing a favourite class is particularly difficult given the diversity of experiences I’ve had in my classes. Two of my favourites were Professor Don Dailey’s “Poverty and Education” class and Professor Eduardo Velasquez’s “A Course About Nothing.”

Professor Dailey’s class was particularly inspirational because it combined probing readings with intense, contrasting fieldwork. The experience of trying to find shelter for a homeless woman then sleeping on the street with her and Professor Dailey due to lack of options in Washington DC was followed less than two weeks later by dinner conversations with third generation coal miners in War, West Virginia. This intimate education about the United States is one of the reasons I have come half-way across the world to study at W&L.

Professor Velasquez’s “Course About Nothing” is my other favourite simply because of the breadth of academic inquiry it entailed. Between excursions into pop culture we delved into Shakespeare, Buddhism, Positive Psychology, Radical Christianity and Quantum Mechanics. This subject matter combined with a major writing experience and group presentations where fun was as important as analysis made for a highly engaging course that changed my outlook on life…and the No Thing.

Favorite W&L Activity: My favourite activity at W&L is getting to know alumni and their stories about W&L of the past. I chose this year to decorate my wing of Davis with past year books and seek out alumni as part of my role as president of Team Traveller. The testimony of alumni enriches my respect and understanding of the traditions, campus and spirit that make W&L the place it is today. Being from a country with a colonial history younger than Washington and Lee the richness of the legacy continues to intrigue and inspire me.

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Coming to W&L, U.S. college sport was something of an enigma. In my home, New Zealand, university sport is predominantly concerned with the pre- and post-match social functions; games are a sideshow with most serious sportspeople playing professionally or for clubs off campus. I initially signed on for Generals cross country and found the rigour and support of the program simply incredible. The opportunity to travel to other states and race was something I definitely did not expect and thoroughly enjoyed. Almost by chance I took up road cycling on the side. Initially it began as occasional cross-training for running, but at the end of the cross country season, I began to think bigger.

Two individuals shaped this vision. In one of my first real experiences of the speaking tradition, I randomly struck up a conversation with W&L alumnus David Cobb ’87 during orientation week outside the Commons. I noticed his road bike and asked him about riding locally. Within a few weeks we had started going on short rides around the county. I reveled in the challenging terrain and beautiful views Rockbridge County has to offer in the fall. Dave also got me on my feet logistically by giving me the gear I needed, like jerseys and race pedals, to be a serious rider.

Midway through the term I also got to know my classmate Matt Langan. Matt, who was relatively new to riding, had posted a campus notice seeking riders to accompany him on an audacious 375-mile tour called Trekkin’ for a Cause from Richmond,Va. to Norristown, Pa. to raise money for Parkinson’s Disease. Given that both my grandparents on my mother’s side had suffered from Parkinson’s, this seemed like a perfect cause. I was captivated by the route, with the added challenge of cold weather in February and the chance to meet alumni along the way.

By the end of November I had finished the cross-country season, but my shins were not in good shape. I decided against running track to give them time to heal. Dave suggested resurrecting the W&L Cycling Club and racing on the USA Cycling amateur circuit. We pulled together a core of interested individuals, filled out the paperwork and in January of 2007, Team Traveller was founded.

In the first season I competed in twelve races, sporting a zebra skinsuit; a throwback to Italian pro Mario Cipollini that became my trademark. Trekkin’ went off without a hitch thanks to generous alumni who hosted us in their homes, and diligent work on the part of Matt Langan in raising media attention that led to over $12,000 in donations to the National Parkinson Foundation. Within three months I was fast-tracked into the next category of amateur racing. Consistent podium finishes, some big wins and outstanding administrative support from Dave attracted a stable of eight sponsors, allowing team members access to professional level equipment at affordable prices.

Campus Recreation came on board with funding for the 2008 season. Some new blood and a better understanding of how to schedule races meant I could lead the team in 15 races, including more time-trials and a stage race in Pennsylvania. While racing in Category Four was more challenging, once I figured out the formula and got some rest after winter finals were over, the results poured in. With big wins across all the major disciplines: time trial, hill climb, road race and criterium, I moved up to Category Three and secured the Virginia State Hill Climb Championship, commanding at the head of Virginia Cycling Association’s Best All Round Rider stakes before I headed off to Bolivia mid-season to volunteer for the summer.

I’m now looking ahead to more intense goals for the two years I have to left in Lexington. These include competing in a two-man team in the Race Across America to raise money for charity, moving up to Category One amateur racing and undertaking a major mountain bike tour in Central America. W&L’s ideal location, superlative alumni and supportive Campus Recreation staff have turned my interest in cycling into a passion.