The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

Illini 4000 shares American cancer experience with Portraits Project

Photo Courtesy of Illini 4000
The logo for Illini 4000’s “The Portraits Project,” a “collection of narratives that demonstrate how Americans respond to cancer based on their unique life experiences and individual beliefs.”

For the first time since before COVID-19, the Illini 4000 (I4K) presented the Portraits Project on Apr. 18 at the University YMCA. Ten physical portraits were featured, detailing the narratives of American cancer patients, survivors, family members and caregivers.

Over 200 stories can be found in the I4K website’s archives, each one collected by members of the RSO during their annual cross-country bike ride.

Since their first ride in 2007, University students have cycled across America every summer, raising money for cancer research and spreading awareness about the disease.

I4K was first realized by two University students studying abroad in 2006. Jon Schlesinger and Anish Thakkar met one another biking in Singapore and began working together to start I4K soon after.

Named for its commitment to an annual bike ride across the country, I4K cycles over 4,000 miles between the University’s spring and fall semesters.

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Emily Gonzalez, sophomore in the Media, serves on I4K’s executive board as the Director of Portraits Project. Gonzalez used her personal experience from riding in 2023 to garner a diverse collection of narratives for the gallery.

“We have portraits displayed from the past three years,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just a way for people to come in and really read the stories that we’ve collected over the summer.”

I4K has successfully raised and donated over $1.3 million since its founding in 2006, donating to beneficiaries such as the Cancer Center at Illinois, David Runyon Cancer Research Foundation and other foundations dedicated to promoting cancer research and advocacy.

The I4K website notes that the Portraits Project is “a unique trademark of the Illini 4000 and demonstrates that there is much more to (its) organization than fundraising and cross-country bike rides.”

Olivia Ross, sophomore in LAS, will be the ride leader for this summer’s upcoming ride. After participating last year, she is excited to return to the ride as a mentor to new cyclists.

“I’m just there to make sure that everyone gets home and across the bridge safely,” Ross said. “And to make sure that we all know what we’re doing and doing things carefully.”

Ross initially joined I4K at the beginning of her freshman year, drawn in by the RSO’s message and her personal experience with family members having cancer.

Ross said her grandfather fought cancer for a few years, and her grandmother spent over 10 years battling into remission only to soon find out she had it again.

“When I was a kid I didn’t think it was that big of a deal because of the grace she just held herself with,” Ross said. “I remember her being such a free spirit and putting her soul into everything and seeing the beauty in everything.”

Unfortunately, Ross’s grandma lost her fight during COVID. Unable to visit the hospital and say goodbye, Ross struggled to find closure.

“I felt like (I4K) is kind of a way to give back and really do justice to something that I felt like she would have been interested in doing,” Ross said. “This is something she would have loved.”

Gonzalez lost her godfather to brain cancer during her sophomore year of high school and used his memory as her fuel on I4K rides.

“I took him with me,” Gonzalez said. “He was really in the forefront of my mind every day during the summer when I biked. He was the reason that I biked.”

Neither Ross nor Gonzalez ever considered themselves to be cyclists or athletes before joining I4K, but they built the stamina and capability to ride with the support of fellow I4K members.

“I was barely an athlete, but I at least wanted to give it a go and see if I could do it,” Ross said. “But I’m really looking forward to being somewhat more of a stable support system for the people on the ride this summer.”

A group of 18 riders will depart from New York City on May 25, set to follow a route across the country where they will finish on Aug. 10 in San Francisco.

“I think this club is super important,” Ross said. “It’s such a unifying experience. No matter who you are or where you’re from you have something that you can relate to with anyone, and I think that’s so beautiful.”


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About the Contributor
Sam Gregerman
Sam Gregerman, Senior Feature Reporter
Hi! My name is Sam, and I’m a sophomore majoring in English with a minor in creative writing. I was hired as a features writer in Fall 2023 after transferring to Illinois, and I began writing for buzz at the beginning of Spring 2024. I’m very excited to step into the role of Senior Feature Reporter and continue my contributions to The Daily Illini! If I’m not in the office, I’m probably next door at the Pi Phi house where I live, reading or watching reality TV. If you have any Champaign-Urbana events or topics you’d like covered, please send me an email using the button below! It is my goal to amplify community voices to the best of my ability.
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