The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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February 14, 2014

Have bike, will travel: Campus minister provides wheels to students

PITTSBURG, Kan. — In a basement workshop across the street from Pittsburg State University, Don Smith has been solving the transportation challenges of international students for 30 years.

The workshop shows it: One wall is lined with tools, another with trinkets and maps and photographs from far-away lands.

PSU has an international student population of 469, representing 37 countries and every continent except Antarctica. Some stay for a semester, some for a year or more.

“Their challenge is getting around here. Most don’t have cars,” Smith said as he installed new brake cables on a bicycle intended for one of four visiting scholars from China.

The four, Manqian Wu, Zhiwei Wang, Zhenbo Wang and Shi Wu, are researching and observing at the Kansas Technology Center this semester. They live at an off-campus apartment complex a mile southeast of the center, and the core campus is west of the center.

To solve such challenges, Smith, who has for more than three decades served as a minister at Campus Christians, was inspired by a loaner bike program offered by a similar group at the University of Missouri.

“I thought we could do that,” Smith said. “But the first year, not one bike came back. Not one.”

Improving the system

Part of the problem, he found, was that a thief wielding a pair of bolt cutters can cut through cheap locks easily, so some bikes were stolen.

“Another was that students didn’t heed my advice to lock them up. And others simply were busy getting ready to graduate or move on after college and they didn’t return them.”

He began imposing a deposit, which is now $35 for the bike and $10 for a basket, and has had more success is getting bikes returned at the end of a semester or a year.

Since July 1, he’s loaned 200 bikes. Of the 25 percent or so that won’t be returned, Smith said he isn’t worried.

“That’s just part of the nature of it.” he said, “I see it as still making a difference.”

Not all of the students who borrow bikes are international, Smith noted.

“A growing number of American students come here after learning about it from an international friend,” he said.

Some of them are athletes, including PSU football players, who would like to bike for exercise or to quickly get back and forth from a campus that has extended farther east in recent years.

Others are seeking a more economical means of transportation that also solves another problem on campus: the lack of parking.

The bike loaner program is self-supporting through the deposits — many of which are not returned to students because bikes aren’t returned, either — and through donations of money and bikes from community members.

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