Most about-to-graduate college seniors with a great job lined up for the fall can’t wait to relax a bit, perhaps hit the beach, spend time with family and friends, take a load off. Weehawken native Cassie Tarakajian attended High Tech High, is set to graduate May 24 from Johns Hopkins, and will work for Bloomberg L.P. as a software developer in September – none of which are small feats by any means.
“I got a call on my cell phone while I was shopping,” Neal Wilkins, Tarakajian’s mom said. “Cassie told me, ‘Mom! I’m going to bike across the country!’”
Exactly a year ago, Cassie’s Phi Mu sorority sister, Katie Oppo, died of small-cell ovarian cancer. She was 19.
“I didn’t know what to make of it at first,” Tarakajian said. “It was a reality check that this could happen to someone so young. I wanted to do something and I didn’t know where to start.”
“It was a reality check that this could happen to someone so young.” – Cassie Tarakajian
“She’s always been a really good kid,” Wilkins added. “She’s worked hard, made good grades, and would be well within her rights to say, ‘I’m just going to sit on the beach all summer.’ But she’s biking across country for a really good cause instead.”
4K for cancer
Beginning May 27, only three days after graduation, Tarakajian will bike 70 days and 4,000 miles from Baltimore, M.D. to San Francisco, C.A. to raise money for and awareness about cancer.
“I was really surprised by her decision,” Wilkins said. “Cassie’s no couch potato, but she’s no jock; she will be now. I give her a ton of credit.”
Tarakajian has added a daily training regimen to her already-full list of pre-graduation responsibilities. 4K has provided her with the bike that will take her through the states, as they do for people who have already raised $2,000. Each participant is required to raise $4,500, and Tarakajian has around $1,000 to go.
“I wanted to do something big, and I found out about 4K at the right time,” she explained. “I know it will be a life-changing experience, and this is the perfect time to do it.”
Her group of 30 bikers, around 10 of whom are also Johns Hopkins students, will travel an average of 65 miles per day. They’ll travel along the Lost Sea in Tennessee, through the Great Plains in Colorado, traverse Zion National Park, and bike Highway 50 leading up to California’s wine country before they cross San Fran’s Golden Gate Bridge to the finish line.
The cyclists will make stops along the way, but not just to rest. Elected group organizers have arranged many cancer awareness-related community service activities, such as cooking meals for individuals or families of those affected by the disease.
“It’s so large to me right now it’s hard to break down,” Tarakajian said. “I’m excited about the whole journey, but I think maybe the night before I won’t sleep at all.”
Carrying on a tradition
Tarakajian is no stranger to community service. She attended Hoboken’s Mustard Seed School, whose curriculum emphasizes the importance of giving back through volunteer work. She’s tutored and volunteered throughout her life, but this, she says, is by far the biggest endeavor she’s ever undertaken.
Though she was beforehand unfamiliar with the cancer community, her grandfather, Dr. Samuel Wilkins, was one of the first physicians to specialize in the treatment of cancer. He died before Tarakajian was born, but it is a part of her history.
“Both of my grandparents are doctors on both my mom and dad’s side, so it’s definitely been a part of my life,” she said. “Any way I can help to support the cancer community I will. I love doing that.”
Tarakajian has spoken with many 4K for Cancer alum, and she has found that they all have fallen in love with the organization. “All of them are so inspired to keep supporting the cancer community and do what they can to come together,” she said. “Hopefully I can continue the chain and help inspire others to do the same.”
Tarakajian has a blog on the organization’s website which she will update throughout her journey. Those interested may continue to contribute to her cause up until her ride concludes on August 4, and may do so by visiting 4kforcancer.org/profiles/cassie-tarakajian.
Gennarose Pope may be reached at email@example.com