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Student Success

First-Year Student Completes Appalachian Trail Before Coming to Wilson College

The silhouette of a person stands with their arms outstretched, holding walking sticks atop a mountain peak. Behind the person is a mountain landscape with an orange and pink sunset.

By Elyse Boldizar

For most, a five-month solo hike is a daunting task, but for Eliza Sweeney, it was a welcome challenge. A first-year student studying fashion and textile design with a concentration in textile design, Sweeney took a gap year before coming to the Wilson College of Textiles to hike the Appalachian Trail. 

Growing up active

Sweeney got the inspiration to hike the trail from growing up in an active family.

“I think it sort of was just slowly integrated into my brain,” Sweeney says. “My parents always took me hiking and we went backpacking a few times and did nearly everything outdoors, so I think the idea just slowly built up over time.”

Although her parents’ adventurous spirit first motivated her to take on the Appalachian, Sweeney says they were initially hesitant at the idea of her spending five months hiking alone.

Eliza, right, stands with her parents atop Mount Katahdin Summit on the final day of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

“They didn’t want me to start by myself, which I totally understood,” Sweeney says. “But it’s hard to ask someone to put their life on pause and go backpacking with you for five months.”

However, eventually, her parents came around.

“We realized it’s a very well populated trail,” Sweeney says. “Eventually, they came to terms with me doing it by myself. We learned it is also very common for thru hikers to start by themselves and quickly form groups and friends to hike with. And, if they ever had any concerns, I loved to tell them that it was their fault that they raised me this way.”

Big challenges, beautiful views

Over the course of five months, Sweeney hiked approximately 2,190 miles through 14 states — starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Every three days or so the trail connected to a neighboring town, allowing Sweeney and the other hikers to stock up on supplies and stay the night at a hostel. 

She used a small satellite phone to keep in touch with family and friends. For the most part however, it was just her and the other hikers. 

A photo of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Fog rises off of a marsh and pond in the foreground with Mount Washington in the background and a forest of trees in between.
“The whole trail section of New Hampshire is the White Mountains so you have Mount Washington and the presidential range,” Sweeney says. “They were just  some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, absolutely gorgeous hiking.”

From having to put on wet socks each morning to the physical demand of hiking the White Mountains — the experience was not without its challenges. Still, Sweeney says the trail had many high points to look back on.

“The section in Virginia was just super beautiful,” Sweeney says. “And I’m from Virginia so a lot of the places I grew up hiking, getting to re-hike those sections were super special to me.”

The trick of transitioning

Before embarking on the trip, Sweeney accepted her admission to the Wilson College for the following year. This allowed her to focus fully on the experience without the distraction of applying to college. Still, the time off made for a tricky transition her first year.

“I was really excited to go to college, but it’s definitely been a big change.” Sweeney says. “Having to learn how to study again and do homework and have a schedule is like a whole new world now because I basically took a year and a half off of school.”

A scenic view of the densely wooded trail through the Great Smoky Mountains. Tall pine trees line a mulched trail, and fog is visible throughout the trees.
A scenic view of the wooded trail through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Sweeney says keeping busy and active helped her acclimate to NC State. Hiking the Appalachian also taught her valuable life lessons, including self sufficiency.

“Hiking the trail has given me independence, and so I’m very comfortable walking around campus by myself. I’m used to being independent now and know how to do that.”

Applying it to textiles

Not only did the hike prepare Sweeney for college independence, but it also strengthened her confidence in her degree.

“While I was hiking the trail it just really reaffirmed my passion for textiles and how you can apply it to everything.” Sweeney says. “For example, backpacking is so detailed with all the different fabrics and materials, which I think is fascinating.”

Since coming to the Wilson College, Sweeney has also gotten involved with the water polo team at NC State as well as Reformed University Fellowship and the cycling team. She envisions a career designing outdoor textiles, like those she relied on during her trip.

“The hike made me focus more on the materials rather than just how a product might look,” Sweeney says. “Just like learning about the nitty gritty details, like why a designer specifically chose to do this style instead of the other one is a super interesting concept.”

After five months hiking, it seems Sweeney already has experience that will help her future ambitions.