How the Millennial Trains Project works
The train ride will help enterprising and civic-minded millennials—those between 18 and 34—grow new ventures. The proposed projects range from improving computer science curriculums to creating so-called "Happiness Labs," which aim to bring together communities with sustainable development and good governance.
"Train travel has a meditative, transformative power," said Malcolm Kenton, director of outreach and engagement at the National Association of Railroad Passengers who is one of the train ride's confirmed participants. "It's a unique way to experience the landscape," he said. Kenton is planning on documenting the cross-country journey through photography and film.
Spots on the train—with a total of 40—are still available. The application deadline is July 15.
Kenton and the other participants are raising $5,000 each through an internal crowdfunding platform to cover the rail travel costs. An Amtrak locomotive will pull private rail cars, chartered for the journey. There will be mentors and discussions on the train, as well as interaction at the city pit stops.
"There's an appetite for experiential learning among millennials," said Patrick Dowd, the project's founder and CEO. "It's something that they're craving, and you sometimes can't even get it at a university."
Dowd, 26, an avid traveler who has journeyed to more than 40 countries, participated in an India train trip called the Jagriti Yatra in 2010 and 2011. As context, train travel is an integral part of India's infrastructure and culture. It's a natural fit to put motivated young people on a train around that country. Thousands of young Indians apply annually for some 400 spots, and the journey is televised nationally.
As a Fulbright scholar, Dowd was invited to participate in what turned into a life-changing experience. Train passengers including mentors and young job seekers emerge from the journey as job creators.
Dowd, among the few international students who have participated, witnessed first-hand "how young people used the spectacle of the train as a medium to spark and sustain conversations about what was working and wasn't working; and what their aspirations were," he said.
From Wall Street to social enterprise
After the India journey, Dowd returned to the States for a job at JPMorgan. It was late 2011, and the Occupy Wall Street movement was brewing outside his lower Manhattan office. Meanwhile, his inbox was brimming with messages from friends he had made on the India trip. Dowd got to thinking.
Maybe there were other ways, beyond Occupy, to respond to the general dissatisfaction with America's trajectory, which the movement was unearthing. Dowd quit job at the end of the year, and the train project was founded soon afterwards.
So what was it like giving notice to an investment banking manager, and explaining you wanted to start a feel-good train project? "You can probably imagine their reaction," he said with a laugh. "I'm not going to comment."
And, yes, for all your naysayers, the project can sound like an earnest social experiment. Let's board a train and save the world! But Dowd said his India experience is evidence that individuals through small projects can create expansive results. India's cost of living is much lower than many Americans.
"But you wouldn't know that talking to a young person in India," Dowd said. "They have a commitment to a rising country. Everything is contributing to the rise of the country."
(Read more: Economy stinks for many, but it's crushing millennials)