University of Texas students hitchhike for charity, return in time for finals

Published on USA TODAY College

The week before finals typically holds sleepless nights, copious amounts of coffee and sporadic Netflix breaks. University of Texas freshman Jessica Zeng and Kelly Ngo decided to also throw in a cross-country adventure nicknamed “Jailbreak.”

“The Jailbreak is an organized contest amongst Oxford students where they travel in teams as far as possible in 36 hours without using any of their own money for transportation to raise money for charity,” Zeng says. “ I decided it would be cool to do this and raise money for my favorite global non-profit and ended up recruiting Kelly to come along with me.”

The girls stood on the highway with a plain sign that read, “Hitchhiking for Charity,” in bold, black letters at the passing motorists. After raising $318 in donations, befriending six drivers and crossing 1,400 miles, freshmen Ngo and Zeng dipped their toes in the Pacific Ocean and celebrated a job well done.

Packing lightly, they brought only the bare necessities, notebooks for journaling and “a copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac for any hitchhiking inspiration,”

Among the many run-ins with kind strangers and new territory, one of the most friendly experiences occurred with Joaquin, a trucker who drove them from Balmorhea, Texas to Tucson, Ariz.

“Joaquin took us to his home where his family provided us with a movie and home-cooked Cuban meal — we also showered, slept and went grocery shopping with them,” Ngo says. “I consider him my uncle. He still calls me up and asks how I’m doing.”

George, the very last driver, happened to drop them off in the neighborhood of Ngo’s dad, where they nervously greeted him as neither of their parents were aware of the journey.

“He freaked out and made us take a plane back,” Ngo says. “ I feel as if he was upset, but also secretly amazed that we hitchhiked there…but probably mostly upset.”

The duo aimed to raise money and awareness for the charity World Vision, which Zeng has contributed to since her middle school years. They received $318 from donors following the trip on social media, or who heard from word of mouth. They plan to keep the donation page open until the end of May.

“85% [of World Vision’s funding] goes directly to local programs that care for children and build communities in third world countries or are invested in global systems where the value of the money is actually stretched,” Zeng says. “They do a ton of things from providing vaccines to building schools and providing education to building wells to provide clean water to teaching agricultural sustainability to villages to providing disaster relief.”

To others who want to participate in their own jailbreak, the girls say to bring a self defense weapon such as pepper spray, use intuition to judge the character of those offering a ride and most of all — stay optimistic.

They say their experiences, memories and connections made on the trip put into perspective how privileged they are — in addition to reaching a new level of faith in humanity.

“I’d say this journey was spiritual,” Zeng says. “It was like a bunch of life truths spread across a 1,400-mile trek halfway across America.”

Jazmyn Griffin is a student at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the USA TODAY College contributor network.

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