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Ph.D. student walks across America for charity, research

Barrett Keene visits Haiti in December 2011.

On Jan. 28, equipped only with a backpack, laptop, cellphone and a few energy bars, Barrett Keene, Ph.D. '13, started walking north from Miami on an eight-month, 3,475-mile trek to San Francisco.

A doctoral student in the field of education, Keene started the "Go Walk America" project to raise funds and awareness for orphaned and abandoned children worldwide and to conduct education leadership research in schools along his route.

As a former middle school teacher and current leadership consultant, Keene has long had a passion for developing leaders in the classroom. And having traveled throughout the Caribbean and Central America, Keene also knew that he wanted to serve the neglected children he had met there however he could.

"I wanted to try to do something while I had a little flexibility being a Ph.D. student," said Keene, who was inspired by and is now partnering with the Kansas City nonprofit The Global Orphan Project (GO Project) for his two-pronged initiative. "This would pretty much be the largest study that's ever been done looking at teachers as leaders in their classrooms, but also being able to provide some care and some needed resources for kids," he explained.

Keene admits his walk is "kind of a crazy thing." With the grueling physical challenge looming and still without a support vehicle, "I'm a little nervous," Keene admitted. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't." He writes about his adventures on his blog,

Though currently alone on the road, Keene made it clear that Go Walk America is no one-man show. Recently, an online social fitness site,, supported the project by signing on to cover most of Keene's living expenses on the road.

Also, student teams at four universities across the country, including undergraduates from the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management's BOLD (Business Opportunities in Leadership and Diversity) program at Cornell, are paving the way for Keene in the 137 towns and cities he is scheduled to pass through, setting up speaking engagements at any organization or institution that will have him.

"Basically I [am] just trying to raise awareness about the fact that we have around 145 million children that are orphaned or abandoned, and presenting opportunities for people to give," he explained.

Keene visits with Haitian children.

Keene hopes that such gifts will allow the GO Project to provide 25,000 school uniforms for children in Haiti and Africa who cannot attend school without one. Buying uniforms not only enables these children to get an education, but the GO Project establishes sewing centers in poverty-stricken communities and employs parents to make the uniforms, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty at two levels. Approximately half of the $20 per uniform cost produces the uniform and the other half provides care for orphans in 15 countries.

For Dawn Schrader, associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Communication and Keene's dissertation adviser, his project was "easy to endorse," even if a large part of it was nonacademic. "College is about more than academics," she said. "It is about the moral, social and intellectual development of students."

Through GO Walk America, "[Keene] is demonstrating leadership by doing, just as teacher-leaders do in their classroom," Schrader explained. "They do not consciously think, 'I will lead others.' But by their actions, they do."

Fittingly, this sort of leadership is what another team of Cornell undergraduates is helping Keene identify at schools along his route through a mixed-methods study with 35 teachers selected for their leadership excellence.

"I am excited about this. … [There] are small things we can do that can literally change the trajectory of the lives of a lot of kids," Keene said, whether through research, fundraising, advocacy or all three. "So whatever my eight months look like, it's going to be worth it."

Paul Bennetch '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.


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John Carberry