Bonner Takes the Road Less Traveled
By: Justin Lafleur, Lehigh Sports Communications
There are a number of paths to the same end goal… and it doesn’t always have to be a straight line.
With the 2020-21 academic year being highly-affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, fifth-year senior Kara Bonner decided to take a leave of absence to work full-time at Bev (a female-founded canned wine company). Now, she’s back at Lehigh and an even stronger student, athlete and person because of the experience.
“I ended up calling that my detour year,” she said. “I found that coming away from it, I’ve learned the value of taking detours. It’s taught me to stay present in every moment, and I believe that translates over into my running career as well.”
Prior to 2020, Bonner was the type of person who always liked to take the most direct route, no matter the situation.
“If I were to describe my previous outlook on life, it would be like a Google Maps GPS system” she said. “I would just pop in the destination and blindly take the fastest route. But then, the pandemic came and I found this opportunity to take a detour that was never originally on my map, but had the potential to be a great experience. I took the scenic route, left school for a little bit and went off on my own path.”
In the summer of 2020, Bonner completed a (virtual) marketing internship with Bev, based out of Los Angeles. That set the stage for a summer drive across the country with her sister Kim, who was starting a job at the CDC in Portland, Oregon as an epidemiologist.
“Kim and I were in the middle of Idaho, surrounded by corn fields, and I had finally gotten cell reception,” said Kara. “I was just checking my Twitter feed and saw the Ivy League had cancelled sports for the fall. As soon as I saw that, my heart dropped and I had tears in my eyes a little bit because I knew what was coming for the Patriot League as well, which made sense for public health and safety.
“In that moment, driving through the corn fields and reflecting on the bumps in my road I had endured in terms of different injuries and sickness to get to this point – and then to have senior year be the COVID year – I knew right then that I wanted to make a change, and control the controllables,” Bonner continued.
“So right there, I decided I was going to leave school for what would have been my senior year. I had this moment when I realized college doesn’t have to be a cookie-cutter experience. You can really make it your own.”
At that time, Bonner had already received a job offer to work at Bev post-graduation, but she hoped something could be worked out sooner.
“After making the decision to leave school, I reached out to the CEO of the company to thank her for the job offer and mentioned I’d be leaving school a little bit earlier if they needed any help,” said Bonner. “The CEO said great, let’s make it happen.”
So, during the 2020-21 academic year, Bonner worked remotely from Bethlehem as an ecommerce marketer (while also working hard to maintain her fitness so she’d be ready to return to cross country and track and field in 2021-22).
“My friends were still finishing their senior years, so I didn’t want to miss the experience of getting to live with my best friends in the entire world,” she said. “I was living with them on the East Coast, but working virtually on the West Coast in this fast-paced, really great startup culture.”
It was an eye-opening, but valuable, challenging and worthwhile experience for Bonner.
“Once I was hired full-time, my original role was to do community marketing,” she said. “But in the world of startups, I learned that it’s all-hands-on deck all the time, so my role actually switched within the first 30 days and was moved into ecommerce. I was one of the people in charge of running the company’s website for all their online sales. It was a huge responsibility, a huge undertaking and one I was so honored to be trusted with.”
The role was also challenging, and something Bonner had no experience doing. Luckily for her, the Lehigh Athletics student-athlete experience came in handy.
“I had to do what it took to pull my weight to help the team,” she said. “It was a great experience and I realized that Lehigh had prepared me to learn quickly and adapt with confidence.
“Sometimes as students, I think we can get caught up in the nuts and bolts of the content we are learning, but a special part of my education at Lehigh has been in the development of my ability of learning how to learn,” Bonner continued. “I saw it translate over into the workplace in my first 30 days on the job.”
Today, Bonner has such a strong appreciation of the Lehigh student-athlete experience, especially because of everything she’s been through.
“As a runner, I had quite a challenging time in college – and as a student, I had a difficult beginning as well,” she said. “My first year was a little bit rocky. I’ve had two stress fractures in each leg and a bunch of anemia problems as well. I really struggled to stay healthy – mentally, physically, and academically – my first two years of college. I came in injured out of high school, that my coach was writing me small-scale workouts to do individually because my body was so depleted. it was a soul-searching time for me.”
Bonner’s support system helped her get through.
“Both my mom and dad were so impactful in getting me through that very hard time,” she said. “My mom would write me letters every week. My dad would come with me to all my doctor’s appointments because there were times when I was getting a medical procedure done every single break coming home from school. They kept me going, as well as my brother and sister, who were so encouraging to me to embrace the mountain I was climbing.
“And the [Lehigh] team as a whole, and the joy they brought me, kept me running – even when I felt like I was on empty.”
Early in her career, Bonner wasn’t sure Lehigh was the place for her, but something deep down told her it was.
That decision would pay off.
“The people I’ve met at Lehigh are undeniably the best group of individuals I’ve ever met in my life,” she said. “There were instances in which the soul-searching process was tugging me to leave Lehigh, but the people here have always kept me coming back.”
In the most recent instance (leaving Lehigh to work for Bev in 2020-21), Bonner returned to a unique situation – a team that she was not only a captain of, but also a team in which she didn’t know half the roster.
“I had never even met the first years or sophomores, so that made for a really interesting experience,” she said. “But they’re absolutely amazing and I love every single one of them. They’re like sisters to me.”
As Lehigh head women’s cross country coach (and track and field assistant coach) Debbie Utesch said, “Kara’s athletic experiences may have helped her navigate the challenges of working remotely with a start-up company in Los Angeles, but I believe she has applied what she learned working with her Bev team to her LUXC team. And those experiences have allowed her to be creative as a captain as she’s tried to get a diverse group of individuals to become a team again ‘post-COVID.'”
Senior Emma Linde said Bonner is the heart of the team.
“Kara personally has hugely impacted my college and team experience in such a positive way,” said Linde. “Coming back after a very strange and difficult year, she has really helped make our team whole again. She is very inspiring, always encouraging and a great role model we can all lean on.”
Sophomore Christina Yakaboski shared one example of Bonner’s impact as a role model.
“I first met Kara this past summer during our preseason,” said Yakaboski. “Each senior had to present a little nugget of wisdom to the underclassmen. Kara proved to be an amazing public speaker and storyteller (Bonner is a journalism major after all). She was able to share her past struggles and advice with vulnerability, yet with an air of confidence. Just from that brief story, I knew Kara was someone I felt safe to ask for advice or share my struggles with.
“This proved true at the end of the cross country season,” Yakaboski continued. “I was struggling to deal with balancing school, life and sports, as well as the internal pressure to perform at my best during our upcoming regional race. I reached out to Kara and she immediately offered to go on a walk to listen and offer advice. She did so without judgment and with relatability, making me feel like I wasn’t going through it alone.”
Bonner admitted that right before the pandemic hit, she began hitting her stride and becoming the Kara Bonner she knew she could be. Now, not only has she continued where she left off in 2020, but her detour year has also made her stronger.
“Kara’s journey through Lehigh is a perfect example that the path to success is not always linear,” said Utesch. “From her arrival on campus her first year, she navigated some crazy twists and turns through injuries, iron deficiencies and having to look in the mirror and answer the question, ‘Is this really worth the struggle?’
“Luckily for Lehigh, Kara kept answering yes, let me find a way.”
Bonner has found a way to succeed through whatever has been thrown her way.
“I’m not sure if this is something she realized at the moment, but I believe Kara seized an opportunity in the newness and uncertainty of the past two years to set a precedent for future leadership,” said Yakaboski. “She truly put her teammates first and was dedicated to advocating for us – whether this manifested in the form of confidence-building, being a liaison between the team and coaching staff or getting to know us on a personal level. She also unveiled the importance of confident vulnerability for leadership, as this fostered her trustworthiness and personability.”
Today, Bonner is co-captain of Student-Athlete Mentors, and also on the Flight 45 Executive Board.
[email protected] senior Kara Bonner discusses why she wanted to get involved with Student-Athlete Mentors (SAM), one of Flight 45’s engagement groups. This feature series is presented by @LehighDining. pic.twitter.com/MXxfsaOAzp
— Lehigh Sports (@LehighSports) May 21, 2021
“SAM has been one of the highlights of my Lehigh career and Flight 45 specifically,” said Bonner. “Getting to work with Julie (Ammary), Cait (Gillard) and Katie (Guynn) has been such a transformative experience. I can’t thank them enough for the confidence they’ve instilled in me through their personal and professional development guidance.”
That confidence has paid dividends for Bonner, and those around her. Helping others, which is at the core of SAM, hits close to home for Bonner.
“Because of how hard my first year was at college, that really motivated me to join the SAM program,” she said. “As a mentor, that’s the goal – to have that first-year experience be smoother and more enjoyable. Being there as a resource for first years is really important to me and something I hold close to my heart.”
Bonner also continues to hold running close to her heart.
“Running is timeless,” she said. “Which seems funny to say, as each day on the track, we’re out racing the clock. But running forces you to be present, and that’s what makes the moment feel timeless. There’s no way to tell when and where your next detour will be, but for now I am going to run the mile I’m in, because the present is all we have, and that was a huge learning for me coming out of my gap year.
“My joy in running comes from my teammates and being with them every single day, day in and out, through the peaks and valleys,” Bonner continued. “Training alone for a year and a half during the gap year was tough, but when I’m back running with them now, I’m so focused on enjoying the present.”
Bonner plans on treasuring every moment she has left at Lehigh before taking her next step, which could potentially include returning to Bev.
“I left Bev with a standing job offer to return whenever I’m able,” she said. “I’m not sure what’s in the cards for me after graduation just yet, but I’m so honored to have that offer from them and I love them all so much.”
Bonner is a journalism major, but there’s no doubt she’ll be successful in whatever she does.
“From the Bev experience, I’ve learned that if I keep working hard in the moment, things will work out in the end,” said Bonner.
“Sometimes, the detour isn’t on the GPS, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth daring to take.”