Life is short, the world is big, and youth and good health are fleeting. University of Delaware alumnus Jay Austin knew this better than most.
At 29, he had already bicycled through Iceland, toured Europe by rail and driven his scooter across America. The 140-square-foot “tiny home” he built in an effort to live minimally and more sustainably had been featured on Netflix, and his message—to be kind and live life to the fullest—inspired his latest adventure to bicycle around the globe.
The ride began in July 2017 and took Austin and his girlfriend, Lauren Geoghegan, past the Sphynx, the mountains, waterfalls and many wonders experienced and people met while pedaling through 25 countries on a journey of indefinite exploration.
Although the couple had mapped out their travel into 2019, the trip came to a tragic end on July 29, when a car in southwestern Tajikistan struck them and five fellow international cyclists. Assailants then fatally stabbed four of the seven victims, including Austin and Geoghegan, in an attack that has since been attributed to the Islamic State.
“They were the sweetest people you could ever meet,” says Austin’s mother, Jea Santovasco. “Jay was a kind, gentle soul who wanted to leave the world a better place.”
But he was not naïve. Austin had written his will and requested that no suits or ties be worn to his funeral. His memorial service was to be a potluck at the park, in honor of his favorite kinds of gathering.
When he quit his government job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the summer of 2017, Austin understood that he was trading in security for adventure. As he wrote in a post on his www.SimplyCycling.org blog last June, “Life is short and the world is big and we want to make the most out of our youth and good health before they’re gone.”
“On bikes,” he had written two years prior, “we learn to appreciate every hill and its eventual descent, to really take in every town or village we pass, no matter how small, to really stop and talk to people and not blow by them at eighty miles per hour.”
He had experienced the fast life already. His mother recalls how Austin would create multi-colored spreadsheets in middle school, charting his plans to graduate college in under four years. Only weeks after his 20th birthday in 2009, he graduated from UD, having completed his degree in international relations in just two.
“I initially did not think he could do it,” says his former adviser Alice Ba, professor of political science and international relations at UD. “But of course, I soon knew better. Jay was always so very, very prepared. He consulted with me constantly. He brought spreadsheets, plans and prospects. He checked and double checked. And he excelled. In the two classes he took with me, even in a class of nearly 90 students, he stood out and spoke out. His excellent grades and record gained him admission to some of the most well-regarded master’s programs in international relations. He embraced his experiences, clearly to the very end—on the road, exploring the world and what it had to offer. May his spirit triumph over the worst among us.”
Austin’s spirit was one of authenticity, decency and integrity. On official documents and applications, he referred to his occupation, simply, as “real human being.”
“His outlook was, ‘Be who you are and be the best,’” his mother remembers. She shared her son’s story with the UD community in hopes of touching “the hearts and minds of students to follow, students that have walked and will walk the same hallways and have sat and will sit in the same classrooms as Jay.”
Austin’s message to them may have likely been one he had already written in April:
“Badness exists, sure, but even that’s quite rare. By and large, humans are kind. Self-interested sometimes, myopic sometimes, but kind. Generous and wonderful and kind. No greater revelation has come from our journey than this.”
Santovasco, who established a GoFundMe page in her son’s memory, says she believes Austin would have also encouraged his fellow Blue Hens to live their dreams.
“He once said, ‘I could die doing what I love, but I could also die never having really lived.’ To me, that would have been a far greater tragedy.”