March 13, 2020
Biking across the country with Celete Kato
By Bill Brink
After more than four years overseas, Celete Kato was coming home. The America she left in 2014 was not the America to which she returned last year, she said, so she thought she’d ease into it.
“And so I was like, let me bike across the country,” she added.
So much for easing into it.
But that endeavor fits Kato, who graduated Carnegie Mellon in 2012 with degrees in both International Relations and Politics and Decision Science, well: She’s a people person with the urge to travel. Information science initially attracted Kato, a Fowlerville, Michigan native, to Carnegie Mellon – along with the campus and the city – but she shifted her focus upon arrival.
“I started to take more of these stats and decision science-type courses and realized I’d always been interested in development and wanted to think more globally, and decided that the international relations route just made more sense for me,” Kato said.
Kato is now a program associate at DreamWakers, an education technology nonprofit in Washington, DC. The previous stops in her career did not lead directly to that point, but from her time at Carnegie Mellon she knew that that was alright.
“Carnegie Mellon was a tumultuous time in my life only because I feel like I switched trajectories very quickly, to two very different things,” she said. “… Just the IRP program in general, Dr. [Kiron] Skinner, some of the professors that I had during that time, they were just these people that I could look up to and be like, OK, career trajectories are not a straight line. There’s a lot that I could do with an IPS degree and it doesn’t have to look like what I think it looks like right now. Being able to take a depth and breadth of different classes and being able to decide there’s not any one right answer here, but this degree could help me in a number of different ways, was kind of interesting.”
After a brief stint at the American Bible Society in Virginia after graduation, Kato began working for America World Adoption, and when a position in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, opened a year later, she took it.
“Port-au-Prince is an amazing place,” Kato said. “The culture, the people, it’s alive. But it is a place that is very dependent now on external aid and support, which I think has its pros and cons. There are so many agencies and nonprofits that do work in Haiti. A lot of it is good; a lot of it I think has become a deterrent to homegrown agencies from inside of actual Haiti.”
Kato accompanied families to government appointments, helped with paperwork and passports, and ran a guest house. She’d taken French in school, but had to learn Creole. At the same time, she felt a calling to travel again. A TED-Talk addict, Kato began following Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University in England. One of Mitra’s experiments inspired the novel Q & A, which was adapted into Slumdog Millionaire.
“I was like, oh my gosh, I need to learn from this man,” she said. “Because I think that definitely a thread throughout my career, for my jobs thus far, has been education. I just don’t feel like you can get anywhere without education, and international development and education go hand-in-hand in so many ways.”
So off she went to Newcastle, almost three hundred miles north of London, to learn about the intersection of technology and education. Upon completion, she pursued something she’d thought about since high school, when a return volunteer gave a presentation.
“Peace Corps in a lot of ways was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Kato said, “but also one of the most amazing.”
Kato traveled to Khao Chamao, a small village in Thailand 120 miles southeast of Bangkok. It was an hour from the nearest bus stop. The 7-Eleven was a ten-mile bike ride away. She taught English and worked on health and gender equality projects.
“Living in such close proximity to people who have a lot and people who have nothing can really mess with your brain,” Kato said. “… And so it was just very interesting to go to Bangkok for a weekend and then go back to your village and be like, wow, this is night and day within a six-hour drive of each other.”
Kato biked everywhere in Thailand, but to be a team leader for Bike & Build, a nonprofit that uses cross-country group cycling trips to benefit affordable housing initiatives, she had to complete 500 miles of training. She and the other three trip leaders each had to fundraise $5,000, which covered basic costs and affordable housing grants. Each leader planned a quarter of the trip’s food and shelter for the 31 riders, and they got as much as they could for free. Sometimes they stayed in a church or a YMCA. Sometimes they camped in a park. Sometimes they showered in the back of a dugout at a community baseball diamond, or bathed in a river.
They dipped their wheels in the Atlantic Ocean in Yorktown, Virginia at the start. After riding about seventy miles a day for seventy-seven days, they did the same in the Pacific, in Astoria, Oregon.
Kato knew she wanted to return to Washington, DC, eventually, and found DreamWakers through a friend of a friend on LinkedIn. As a program associate, she runs their communications and their educator and pipeline partnerships.
“DreamWakers is trying to harness technology to close the career opportunity gap,” she said. “We’re exposing rural and low-income communities to professionals in a variety of different careers. Really our goal is making sure that kids who are sitting in class are seeing people who look like them doing jobs that they could do in the future.”
Her career has been all over the place. And that’s OK.
“I think I came into college thinking, whatever degree I get is going to be what I do for the rest of my life,” Kato said. “I feel like I would tell a younger me, one, calm down, and two, this is a time for you to explore and try new things. You can use college to experience new places and new people and give yourself the opportunity to step outside your comfort zone to be like, I don’t know if this is something that I’m going to like, but I’m going to try it.”