A long and winding road to a Laotian school

Patrick Cook-Deegan '07 will cycle across Laos this summer for an educational cause

Friday, April 14, 2006

While other Brown students may spend the summer as camp counselors, in office internships or investment banks, Patrick Cook-Deegan ’07 will bike along the entire length of Laos, alone. Cook-Deegan will cycle 900 miles in an effort to raise $15,500 toward building a new Laotian school.

Sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam in Southeast Asia, Laos has the dubious distinction of being one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. A former varsity lacrosse player for the Bears, Cook-Deegan spent nearly a month in Laos last summer while on an eight-month journey around the world which culminated in a semester abroad at the University of the Bosphorus in Turkey.

The “incredible poverty of the majority of Laotians” that Cook-Deegan saw first-hand inspired him to help alleviate local challenges in his own way, he wrote on the Web site created for his trip. He sees his project, Cycle For Schools 2006, as an opportunity to better understand the needs of people in the developing world, something he hopes to continue to do after he graduates.

Cook-Deegan’s trip is scheduled for Laos’ monsoon season, which makes the country’s terrain challenging. To prepare for the conditions, Cook-Deegan went snowshoeing in Vermont over spring break. As further training he will take part in a half Ironman competition in June, in which he will have to swim 1.2 miles, bike another 56 miles and run 13.1 miles.

“That should get me in pretty good shape,” he said.

Despite the trying environment of his summer endeavor, the only special equipment Cook-Deegan plans to pack is a hammock with a mosquito net and “lots of bug repellant.” Expressing a disdain for the traditional tourist traps found in every country, Cook-Deegan said he hopes to immerse himself in Laotians’ lives, eat meals with them, sleep in their houses and see how they live in “more of a raw form.”

So far, Cook-Deegan has raised approximately half the money needed to build the school, primarily through e-mails sent to friends and relatives requesting financial donations and encouraging them to pass the message on. STA Travel has agreed to subsidize Cook-Deegan’s airfare, and DHL is sponsoring the shipment of his bike to Laos.

He is making his trip in partnership with Room to Read, an international organization that seeks to educate children in developing Asian countries by helping to provide schools, libraries and language and computer labs. The organization also strives to provide long-term scholarships.

Once the requisite funds are raised in full, they will be transferred to one of the communities Room to Read is working on in Laos. Cook-Deegan’s cycle journey will fund the construction of one community’s main secondary school as part of Room to Read’s “challenge grant model,” according to Jayson Morris, the organization’s associate director. This program involves community members in the construction of new schools by requiring them to donate land, labor and materials – a method designed to ensure long-term sustainability that appealed to Cook-Deegan.

When he visited Laos for the first time, Cook-Deegan was surprised by how kindly Laotians treated him in a country where the aftershocks of the Vietnam War can be felt to this day. Laos has been dubbed “the most bombed country in the world,” and the danger of leftover live bombs from the war makes traveling off the road a life-threatening activity.

Those who know Cook-Deegan say that his enthusiasm for community service and predisposition to challenging himself make him uniquely inclined to the cycling trip. “Patrick is a very socially minded young person, very determined and open to new ideas,” said Adjunct Lecturer in Engineering Josef Mittlemann ’72 P’00 P’04, who advised Cook-Deegan on a group independent study project focused on innovation in domestic and international education.

Even the parents of Cook-Deegan’s friends seem to be enthusiastic about his summer journey. Julie Hill, mother of Matthew Newcomb ’07, describes herself as “a bit of a cheerleader” for her friend’s son’s project. She has contributed to Cycle For Schools 2006 and helped spread the word to others.

“He’s a very talented young man, but he has a real compassion of heart as well,” she said, adding that Cook-Deegan’s combination of athleticism, intelligence and compassion is rare.

Cook-Deegan hopes this trip will inform his future plans to work in international development by giving him an understanding of the Laotian people and the challenges they face. He prefers this perspective to hypothesizing about development solutions from afar. “This trip is a way to be on the ground and talk to people as opposed to sitting in a classroom and reading about them,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel justified issuing blanket statements about what needs to be done about a different culture.”

But he also hopes his trip will be an adventure. He said he likes knowing that while journeying across the country he will have no idea where his next meal will be coming from. As someone who said he finds himself “claustrophobic” in “distorted and mangled” urban environments, Cook-Deegan can look forward to hundreds of miles of solitary journey through Laos’ lush natural landscape.