Rockford, Ill (WIFR) -- After taking a chance and applying for a writing program overseas, Boylan graduate Ryan Bernsten is in his final year at Oxford University, studying for his masters in writing.
For his thesis project, the writing department at Oxford requires their students to choose a research project of their choice, conducting in-field research over a period of five months. Bernsten says the only things he’s good at are traveling, talking to people and writing, so he decided to propose the idea of traveling to all 50 states in the United States, meeting with communities about what makes them unique.
He thought the department would help him pare down such a large project, but to his surprise, they approved it and he had less than a month to figure out how he was going to do it.
“They told me in July and I was on the road by August,” said Bernsten.
He mapped out a plan to go from coast to coast, cold calling local municipalities to try and find officials to talk to from cities all over the nation.
“The hardest part was finding people to stay with,” said Bernsten, “it was very important to me to stay with people in the communities I visited… I learned more from locals by just having a beer with them, sharing a meal.”
During his five month journey, Bernsten put over 20,000 miles on his brand new Toyota Prius named Belinda, and met hundreds of people from communities all over the nation.
He says the central theme he found traveling and talking to communities about the issues they face is that everyone wants strong communities.
“Knox White is the mayor of Greenville, South Carolina and he told me the three things to make a city thrive are to build apartments above stores, fill those old buildings with local businesses, and bring in economic development,” said Bernsten. “Once that economic incentive moves in, people will see that thriving downtown and say, ‘I want to live there,’ then start moving in.”
But besides building up communities through economic development, Bernsten says volunteering and getting involved in your local community is the best way to change it.
"It gives you that sense of morale and pride,” said Bernsten. “I think when people wake up and start getting involved in their communities and don't wait for someone else to do it, that's when we can turn a miserable place into a magical place."
After going to 49 states, Bernsten returned home to Rockford, the last stop on his cross country project. He says Rockford is doing a lot of things right, and the community has transformed since his youth.
"People want to live somewhere where they feel like there’s great things going on, that there’s energy, and I think Rockford is a really great poster child for that.”
Staple events like Stroll on State and local businesses like Prairie Street Brewery help people form memories and bond with a city, says Bernsten, and things like that help make a community stronger.
“People will step up and start making change in their community when people want it to succeed,” said Bernsten. “I think that’s what I saw in Rockford. Even though the recession hit us hard, there are people here that if they come up with an idea and have a plan for it, there are going to be people that step up and help them out with that.”
Bernsten is interviewing Rockford mayor Tom McNamara next week about the city and how it has changed since he left for college.
He is also working on writing a book about his project and will be releasing a podcast soon. Each episode will detail a different city he visited, having guests on to discuss the differences and similarities between each place.
To follow along with Ryan’s journey, you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram @50statesofmind, or his website www.50statesofmind.org