Skip to main content

Students spend break volunteering on the Appalachian Trail

Looking back at one of the most memorable alternative break trips that happened at Warren Wilson College in 2019

At Warren Wilson College, students share a fierce obligation to serve their community and contribute to the greater good. That’s why one group of students volunteered to do maintenance work on the Appalachian Trail during their fall break.

The trip was an “alternative break” offered by the Center for Community Engagement. Students worked with the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, a nonprofit organization responsible for maintaining 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

“It definitely gave me an appreciation for how much effort it takes to maintain the Appalachian Trail,” said Debra Penberthy, a Warren Wilson integrated advising coach who accompanied the students. “We were impressed to learn that the club had put in 9,000 hours of work (as of October) to maintain the trail.”

Among the maintenance work the group completed, they hiked 16 miles in two days and delivered 100 pounds of mulch to the privy next to one of the Appalachian Trail shelters.

The students who participated said the experience meant something different to each of them. One had already hiked the whole Appalachian Trail, and he said the trip gave him the chance to understand what goes into maintaining the trail and to give back to something that had impacted him. For another student, this was her first hike over four miles. She is planning to major in Outdoor Leadership, and she said the trip gave her a first glimpse at this kind of outdoor adventure and service.

Katie Slickman, the student leader for the trip, said she was grateful for the opportunity to get a taste of leadership in a small group setting. The trip satisfied her community engagement project requirement for graduation.

“I was able to build on my own leadership skills, learn about event organization and planning, and engage with students in the campus community as well as people doing impactful work outside of it,” said Slickman, who is majoring in environmental studies with a concentration in sustainable agriculture. “I would recommend leading or participating in a break trip to all students.”

Another student said being able to interact with Penberthy and the vice president of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, Diane Petrilla, gave her encouragement into her career path. She is planning to double major in biology and creative writing because she wants to communicate with the general public about scientific issues in a more impactful way.

“The time that the students were able to spend with Diane was incredibly valuable,” said Penberthy.  “Diane recently retired as a small-town family doctor. Several of our students on the trip are majoring in the natural sciences and were able to bounce around ideas off of her.”

All the students said that giving back is important, and they were excited for a chance to do that.

“Any amount of energy contribution to outside organizations is significant and valuable,” said Slickman. “Volunteering will help people you may never even meet.”

The “alternative break” trips are one example of an intentional effort Warren Wilson College is making to prepare students for lives of engaged citizenship.

“My hope is that students take away an inspiration to do more, academically as well as personally, about an issue of focus—in this case, environmental stewardship and land stewardship,” said Shuli Archer, the director of community engagement at Warren Wilson College. “I hope this inspires them to go back and do this kind of work in their own community.”