In January 2020, just before their final semester at MIT, seniors Vick Liu, SB ’20, and Max Kessler, SB ’20, joined the Kayany Foundation to distribute the latest version of TravlerPack—the compact sleeping bag they designed with a group of fellow students—to Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley.
“It was a really meaningful moment,” says Liu, vice president of international sales and operations at Hochuen Medical. “It solidified why we have been working so hard for the past few years.”
The trip to Lebanon, however, would be the pair’s first and—for a time—last chance to directly see the results of their dedication and hard work in the hands of the Syrian refugees they were inspired to help. Liu—then a Course 15 senior majoring in finance—and Kessler—then a Course 2 senior majoring in mechanical engineering—quickly found themselves encountering an entirely different world back in the United States, where COVID-19 was beginning to spread.
That March, the Institute made the difficult but necessary decision to send thousands of students, faculty, and staff home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Among the other major changes later announced by the administration was the cancellation of all in-person graduation ceremonies and celebrations for the class of 2020.
“I never got a chance to go back and say goodbye to all the people who put in an incredible amount of work to support us,” says Kessler, a Knight-Hennessy Scholar pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford. He will be joining Liu and many other Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 alumni for a special ceremony as part of Tech Reunions this year.
“I’m hoping to reconnect with them," adds Kessler, "to tell them how much all their hard work meant—and still means—to me.”
A community effort
Liu was inspired to create what would become TravlerPack in the fall of 2016, when he was enrolled in the Discover Entrepreneurship and Leadership First-Year Pre-Orientation Program and the seminar Founder’s Journey taught by Ken Zolot, MOT ’95. In the latter, a chance conversation with guest lecturer Marty Culpepper, SM ’97, PhD ’00, MIT’s first maker czar, resulted in a borrowed sewing machine and a working prototype that spring.
TravlerPacks distributed to Syrian refugees
An extended design phase, a nonprofit partnership, and a crowdfunding and media campaign quickly followed, leading to the distribution of the first 600 TravlerPacks in February 2018. With the support of NuDay Syria, the bags were given to refugees in Idlib, Syria, less than 20 miles from the war-torn country’s northwestern border with Turkey. Following a substantial redesign, 400 new bags were distributed by NuDay Syria to refugees in Idlib the next year.
In addition to Zolot and Culpepper, Liu and Kessler credit many other individuals and groups across the MIT and MIT Sloan communities with making TravlerPack a success. Like Michelle Hanlon (Howard W. Johnson Professor; Professor, Accounting) and Scott Alessandro (Director, Undergraduate Education), who served as Liu’s undergraduate advisors at MIT Sloan.
“During the first one or two years, I felt a bit of an existential crisis about TravlerPack. Like, ‘Is this the right project to work on? Is this the right thing to place all our time and effort?’” says Liu. “Michelle and Scott were both really supportive, helping me think through these questions. They kept me going and gave me the confidence boost I needed when I needed it the most.”
Alessandro says Liu was a source of encouragement to his fellow students.
“Vick has always had the strength and courage to pursue those opportunities that were of interest to him and had the most impact,” says Alessandro. “Vick encouraged students to just do entrepreneurship—if they had an idea, chase it; if they had an interest, pursue it. He is an example of how students can utilize their skills to find where they can and will have impact.”
Outside of MIT Sloan, both Liu and Kessler emphasize the importance of the IDEAS Global Challenge (now IDEAS Social Innovation Challenge) at the Priscilla King Gray (PKG) Public Service Center. At the time, the decades-old student innovation competition was led by Administrator Keely Swan and PKG Center Senior Director Kate Trimble. Now senior associate dean and director of the Office of Experiential Learning, Trimble recalls Liu and the TravlerPack team as a “standout” group in 2018.
“Vick brought all the right ingredients to the recipe of making TravlerPack a success: deep compassion and respect for the plight of refugees; a hard-nosed and clear-eyed business savvy; polished professionalism; and good-humored authenticity,” says Trimble.
Swan, who now works at Princeton, echoes Trimble’s sentiment.
“Vick often spoke with me about the ‘aha’ moments he had along the way, realizing that his understanding of what people might want or need may not be accurate, and that he needed to involve others in the design process and be open to different perspectives,” she says. “Rather than falling in love with his own design, Vick was more interested in understanding the larger context and addressing people’s needs.”
Feet on the ground
Throughout the design and redesign processes, the TravlerPack team embodied Swan’s words about being open to change and understanding the larger context of people’s needs. During the 2018 and 2019 distributions, NuDay Syria spoke to refugees receiving the bags about what worked, what didn’t, and what was needed.
“Going through this iterative process made it so that we were co-designing TravlerPacks with the people using our bags instead of telling them, ‘Here’s something you should use because we think it works best,’” says Kessler. “That said, it really wasn’t until the Lebanon trip that we became confident in what we were doing.”
In particular, Liu remembers being with Kessler and Kayany Foundation members in the Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon, watching a mother open one of the sleeping bags for her family. She easily intuited its features without need of their assistance and was able to use it without issue.
“Seeing her using it without any type of instruction from either of us was everything,” says Liu. “It’s one thing to get positive feedback from one of the nonprofit’s interviews, but it’s a completely different thing to see it in person, right there in front of you.”
Similarly, Liu and Kessler are looking forward to traveling back to Cambridge for their delayed commencement ceremony later this month. It was one thing to celebrate via livestream, but it will be something else entirely to see everyone in person. They are especially excited to reconnect with everyone who helped with TravlerPack, which recently completed a fundraising campaign of $116,000 to send around 2,000 more sleeping bags to Idlib through NuDay Syria.
Beyond celebrating these successes, Liu is eager to take a leisurely stroll down Memorial Drive from Killian Court to the MIT Sloan School of Management’s home in E62 and back.
“Rushing around campus all the time definitely did not give me the opportunity to slow down, appreciate, and be grateful for everything that MIT and MIT Sloan have given me,” he says. “It’s something that I really look forward to—that, and taking my sweet time while walking up and down Memorial, along campus and the Charles River.”