Students at Emory & Henry earn credit for hiking Appalachian Trail

More than 3,000 people attempt to hike the full 2,200 miles of the Appalachian Trail each year. For the 20 percent that complete the trek from Georgia to Maine, the journey takes just shy of six months on average.

But very few people who attempt to hike the whole trail — or “thru-hike,” as it’s called — do so while they are full-time students.

However, since 2006 Emory & Henry College, a small private liberal arts college in Emory, Va., has pioneered a unique program to let students take classes while they hike the Appalachian Trail.

“It’s not an easy experience — it’s deeply and truly challenging,” said Jim Harrison, professor of English and director of the outdoor program at Emory & Henry. Harrison himself completed a thru-hike of the trail with his wife in 1997.

The program, called Semester-A-Trail, offers students both academic credit and trail support. Students in the program work with professors to design self-directed projects that can be completed on the trail. For the two months before hiking season begins in March, they do initial research, reading and studying. Since the program began, about 12 students have taken part.

“It’s intensive, it’s immersive, it’s for students who demonstrate some independence and some maturity,” said Harrison.

The academic work is in some ways limited by the setting. Students can’t bring laptops or heavy textbooks, and places to charge phones can be few and far between. But students can keep journals — for the program’s required nature writing course — take photographs and document what they are seeing and feeling. Students have designed projects in phenology, physiology and communications. (For some classes, Harrison said, if independent projects can’t be created, he will work with professors to instead shorten a normal class to a seven-week schedule so that all material can be covered before the trek.)

In those two months before they are driven down to Springer Mountain in Georgia — the trail’s southern terminus — students also prepare for the journey in other ways. Together they take part in physical conditioning and outdoor training, learning to find water, cook and set up camp. The college provides the outdoor gear students will need on the trek. If there are multiple students in the program, they will start on the same day but typically complete the journey solo.

For Tilghman Moyer, those two months before the trip began were especially important, because they allowed him to get to know Emory & Henry.

Moyer was the program’s first transfer student. He transferred to Emory & Henry for one semester to complete the trail program and then transferred back to Temple University, where he is now a senior. Coming from a large, urban university, he valued the opportunity to study at a small institution. When he arrived on his first day, late at night, he said, the dean of students met him in the parking lot to escort him to his new dorm.

For Moyer, completing the trail was always a goal. Before he learned about the Emory & Henry program, he was planning to try to convince Temple officials to give him academic credit for a thru-hike.

“I didn’t want to wait, and it would have been harder to convince my mom to let me take a semester off,” he said. “Being able to connect what I love to do and then a thru-hike, I would never do it any other way.”

Once on the trail, students are supported by Harrison and the outdoor team, who can meet with them, talk through gear problems, help with resupplies or put hikers up in hotels as needed.

“I felt extremely supported,” said Sadie Burton, now a senior at Emory & Henry. “I had a Garmin device that helped me contact Jim every day, send him my coordinates, where I was, how I was doing. And I also was able to text him regularly if my phone battery allowed it.”

“For those first 400 miles, I knew that I was walking towards Jim and I knew that was walking towards the college and I knew that if I needed anything, he was four hours away from me,” Moyer said.

Harrison said the college administration has fully embraced the Semester-A-Trail program. It communicates the values of the institution and makes it stand out, he said.

“What a small school can do,” he said, “is create these big experiences that you can’t get anywhere else. We can transform the educational experience to be meaningful and powerful.”

The program costs $14,000 for students to participate in, but some of that amount is often covered by existing financial aid packages, Harrison said.

The college was planning to send more than 20 students on the Appalachian Trail this spring, but the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. Now the cohort is only five students.

Even though they are completing academic work, some students say the real lessons they learned came from the trail itself. The program makes students into problem solvers, Harrison said.

“Every day was a new adventure,” said Moyer. “I got to do something that was mentally a strain, physically a strain, just totally life altering.”

“It definitely helped me become independent and work on my time management and self-discipline,” said Burton. “These days, any time I face something difficult, I remind myself that I was able to rely on myself to climb the next mountain, to get to the next shelter. If I was able to do that, I can do just about anything.”

Hiking for hours each day — spending unthinkable time in the space of one’s own mind — Harrison said, is part of the challenge.

“It’s going to be harder than you thought it could possibly be,” Harrison said he tells new students, “but it will also be more beautiful than you ever imagined.”

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