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Q&A with Julia Kirpalani, BWorks’ first-ever summer intern

This week, we’re taking a moment to congratulate our summer intern, Julia Kirpalani, on a wonderful season of work with us. A rising junior at Washington University in St. Louis, Julia connected with us several months ago through her involvement with the Pershing Fellows program. She jumped right into an intensive summer internship with us, eagerly assisting with all sorts of projects as well as youth classes.

No matter the task at hand, or the weather, Julia proved to be an enthusiastic and indispensable member of our team this summer. We can’t wait to see where her next chapters take her.

She recently sat down to answer a few questions from us and reflect a bit … take a read! 

We were so delighted to have you working with us this summer, as our first-ever intern. What stood out to you about St. Louis BWorks from the get-go?

I liked BWorks for how ambitious it is and how well it executes all of its goals. I am constantly amazed by how much our small team can accomplish, from coding, to refurbishing computers, to reconstructing bikes and so much more. BWorks is well integrated into many pockets of the St. Louis community, and I love that we offer opportunities to every kind of kid. 

Can you talk a little bit about some of the activities and projects you most enjoyed tackling and contributing to?

Frankly, I’ve loved getting my hands dirty in the shop. I hadn’t really worked with bikes before coming to BWorks (other than fixing a bike brake with three hair ties in high school), so this has been an awesome learning experience (and also a humbling one). BWorks has really neat projects in the works, including some new alumni rides. I’ve enjoyed researching potential routes in the area and riding with my supervisor Evie around St. Louis. Besides these roles, I have been assisting with Learn-to-Ride and Earn-A-Bike classes, analyzing our social media, brainstorming new marketing strategies, creating a framework for the BWorks Youth Council for Street Safety, and researching potential partnerships for our expansion into a new building.

What surprised you most, looking back on the summer?

I thought I would just be teaching kids how to ride bikes, but bike riding is much more confidence than mechanics. My job is primarily to instill confidence in the kids we work with — technique follows naturally. I was surprised to see how much these classes can mean to the kids that we teach.

What came easy, and what was hard?

I have worked with kids for the past four summers at Scout camp, so I was relatively used to how chaotic some classes can get. I have also taught classes in the past relating to camping, hiking, and backpacking, so I felt decently comfortable presenting to students.

There were definitely many challenges that came along with this job. I am about to enter my third year of undergrad at WashU, but I am originally from Long Island, New York. Before this summer, I was not well acquainted with St. Louis beyond the UCity area. Getting to some of our offsite BWorks classes was sometimes challenging, as well as planning bike routes on roads I hadn’t really traveled before. I also struggled with not being an expert when I was supposed to be a leader. In many circumstances, especially toward the beginning of the summer, I didn’t know much more about bikes than some of our 8-year-olds. I learned to simultaneously play the role of student and teacher this summer.

Is there one particular moment that you can describe that kind of encapsulates the magic of BWorks in your view?

It’s always a special moment when it all just clicks, and in the blink of an eye a non-rider is suddenly zooming around the parking lot with the biggest grin on their face. I remember working with a 10-year-old who struggled to keep both feet on the pedals because she was afraid of losing her balance. Whenever the left foot pedaled, we yelled “push!,” and whenever the right foot pedaled we yelled “power!” Later that day, we had a continuous succession of “push” and “power” and she rode around feeling freer than ever. I was so, so proud of her and so grateful to witness such a milestone.

What do you see as some of the opportunities and challenges for the organization in the future?

The organization can grow in so many ways. I wholeheartedly believe in our curriculum, and I believe that we could share our curriculum with other biking nonprofit organizations to enable kids around the country with the same skills and competencies as BWorks students. I am looking forward to the organization expanding to a new facility, where we will be able to host more students (and bikes!). 

What may be challenging is that the BWorks core team is relatively small, which makes expansion limited to the capacities of our team. While we have many instructors, there may come a point where BWorks will need to expand our administrative team to keep up with all that we can do.

How do you think your time with BWorks relates to some of your interests and pursuits as you look toward your own future chapters?

I am studying a combined Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology major, with a double minor in Environmental Studies and German. I, like many BWorks staffers, have many disparate interests that are difficult to confine to one box. My job relates to my major in that I work with many different people, some more outgoing than others. As an assistant instructor, it’s my job to approach situations with empathy and facilitate an environment where every student feels heard. Some students have ADHD, anxiety, or autism, all of which I am studying at my university. Understanding how these conditions affect students and eliminating deterrents from learning are both crucial elements in creating a well-functioning classroom.

Is there anything else you’d like to share as you reflect on your great work with us these past two months?

This has been an experience of massive growth and I am proud to have interned for such an admirable organization. I want to thank Patrick, Quorey, Betsy, and Mike for taking me under their wing and teaching me valuable skills for the organization. And, a very special shoutout to my supervisor Evie for working closely with me and being there for all of my BWorks milestones.

We’d be remiss not to shout out the Pershing Fellows organization for making all of this possible in the first place. Can you close by talking a little bit about what you think sets the Pershing Fellows apart here in St. Louis?

This is the first year of the Pershing Fellowship in Nonprofit Leadership. There are ten fellows from WashU and seven fellows from Saint Louis University. Each of us were selected via four essay prompts, two letters of recommendation, and two rounds of interviews. Upon receiving the fellowship, we committed to the ten-week program, which entails working closely with a St. Louis nonprofit (via a matching process) and attending weekly professional development meetings, where the fellows visited other St. Louis nonprofits, received public speaking training, and even toured some St. Louis neighborhoods. The Pershing Fellowship is a $10,000 grant.

The fellows that I work with are some of the brightest minds I have met in my college career, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the connections I have made. I am blown away by my colleagues’ resilience and outspokenness about the issues they are driven to fix. We have had meaningful conversations on Community-Based Action Plans, St. Louis’ history of systemic racism, the housing crisis in St. Louis, gun violence, and more. The fellows do not back down from a challenge, and we are committed to making St. Louis a more equitable and serene place.