David Woodard ’13
“Goucher was the first place I had to start stepping outside my comfort zone. It helped my fixed mindset of ‘I’m not good at this’ start to change.”
David Woodard ’13 said hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2017 was the culmination of his Goucher experience.
“Goucher was the first place I had to start stepping outside my comfort zone,” he said. “It was the first place I was around peers who were driven. It helped my fixed mindset of ‘I’m not good at this’ start to change.”
Woodard was not a terribly experienced hiker prior to setting foot on the 2,200-mile trail. After graduating with a degree in history, he worked for Americorps for nine months, including some time cleaning trails in Northern California.
“That was my first experience spending a lot of time outside and I really enjoyed it.”
In 2014, he started a job as a program coordinator at the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, supporting low-income students, but the long hours of desk work started to take their toll. He moved on to case management at Housing Up, working with chronically homeless families, but the outdoors kept calling, and short day hikes weren’t cutting it. A friend had embarked along the Appalachian Trail and was sharing photos on social media.
“I just thought, ‘That looks so much better.’”
With a little extra money saved up, and plans for graduate school on the horizon, Woodard realized it was now or never. He began his preparation in December 2016 and set out four months later, in March 2017. Over the next seven months, he walked 15 to 20 miles every day, carrying a 40-pound pack on his back.
The learning curve, he said, was steep. The first night, the temperature dropped to five degrees. A family gave him an extra sleeping bag. He cuddled up with another hiker to share body heat. “A friend called it a ‘crash course in coping skills,’ and I thought that was a great way to phrase it.”
Although Woodard set off without a companion, he was rarely alone, and the kindness of strangers was essential along the way.
“It’s rare that you’re isolated,” he said. “I met so many people along the trail and hiked with different groups along the way. I know a lot of people do the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t expect to see 40 or 50 tents at a campsite.”
And it wasn’t just fellow hikers who made an impression.
“There’s a phenomenon called trail magic, where people show up at road crossings, feed people, and take people into their homes (to eat or shower). It’s fascinating, the community around it, the pure kindness and support.”
Upon returning to the “real world,” Woodard needed to get back into the workforce. Inspired by his time with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, an organization dedicated to financial support for high-achieving, low-income students, he joined Collegiate Directions as a college counselor.
“I was lucky to have a lot of support in my own college process,” he acknowledged.
He also looks to his time as a family case manager, particularly advocating for children in classrooms. “That’s where I saw potential for the most change.”
Stacy Cooper Patterson, associate dean of students for community life, applauds the work of organizations like Collegiate Directions and the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, and individuals like Woodard, who are working to make a college education a reality for students who might otherwise not be able to attend.
“With the cost of higher education continuing to increase, it’s so important that we do everything we can to provide access,” she said. “Education is the path out of financial hardship for so many people. It’s not easy, but it’s so important to see that there are nonprofit organizations that are trying to do that type of work.”
She pointed to on-campus efforts, including the Phoenix Program for first-generation students and the Maryland Scholars Program for in-state students from low-income backgrounds, to help underserved students thrive at Goucher. Similarly, Greater Goucher Fund (GGF) works to level the playing field in terms of access—nearly 50 percent of annual giving to the GGF goes directly to supporting student financial aid and scholarships.
Today, Woodard works with 11 high school juniors and five seniors, organizing tutoring, helping them with college and financial aid applications, taking them on campus tours, and tracking their progress. He looks to both his experience at Goucher and his time on the trail to inform his interactions with the students.
“I think the completely nonjudgmental, unconditional love I experienced unexpectedly as part of the Appalachian Trail community has had a profound impact,” he said. “I hope to create that in whatever environment I work in.”