Janelle Lewis MSA ‘18 – Alumna finds peace on the Appalachian Trail

1.19.2023 Alumni News
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Taking a leave of absence from Deloitte, Janelle pursued a bucket list dream of completing a thru hike of almost 2,200 miles on the Appalachian Trail. Alumni Council member Manish Khadiya (MBA ‘04) talks with Janelle about her unconventional path to the MSA degree, the peace she found on the Trail, and her newfound appreciation for what’s truly important in life.

Manish: From majoring in sociology at Clemson University to working in the culinary arts, your path to accounting was unconventional. Tell us more about your past experiences and what drove you to Wake Forest to pursue a masters in accounting.

Janelle: It’s actually an interesting story! Ever since high school, cooking has been a passion of mine. Shortly after graduating from Clemson, I went to culinary school in Portland, Oregon, at Le Cordon Bleu. Unfortunately, after over two years as a line cook working in both French and German restaurants, I realized the restaurant industry was not a viable long term career for me. Funny enough, it was actually my mother who recommended I pursue accounting! And despite my hesitation to pursue what is perceived to be a boring field, I took a few accounting classes, and it clicked. I realized that a career in accounting would align much better with my life goals and knew graduate school would be the best way to achieve those goals.

Manish: How has the MSA degree helped you get where you are today (at Deloitte)?

Janelle: The Wake Forest MSA program is tailor-made for the students’ success; I learned the skills I needed to be successful in my career. Not only was I taught everything I needed to pass the CPA Exam (and given the time to do so), but the three-semester program gave me the opportunity to do an internship to overcome my lack of accounting experience. Through the recruiting process with Wake Forest, I had exposure to top-tier accounting firms, and my internship allowed me to graduate with a job in hand!

Manish: You took a leave of absence from work to walk the Appalachian Trail. Was this a lifelong goal? What inspired you to take this challenge?

Janelle: I grew up in Massachusetts, so I was familiar with the Trail as a child. However, it wasn’t until some family friends my parents’ age completed the Trail that I added it to my proverbial bucket list as something feasible down the road. When COVID-19 hit, I was yearning for a way to get out of the house and connect with others and nature. Hiking was a way to do that – to connect with nature and seek out quiet time to heal from the mental burnout of working amidst a pandemic. Another employee at Deloitte had previously taken a leave of absence to hike the A.T., and Deloitte supported it, so I decided to pursue the same opportunity. The hike helped me re-energize and reset. In total, I hiked 2,194.3 miles in five months and 10 days. That was roughly 22-25 miles a day during the peak of summer. Every year, about 5,000 – 6,000 people attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail but only 25% complete it.

Manish: You hiked a continuous footpath from Georgia to Maine. What did you learn? Would you do it again?

Janelle:  I learned so much on the Trail. The Trail has a way of immediately separating one’s needs and wants, and making even the simplest wants seem extravagant. In this first world country that is the United States, many of us are so incredibly privileged to have the comforts we do – even living in the woods – that I have an incredible sense of gratitude for what I have, which I previously took for granted.

The Trail allowed my mind to quiet down and realize what in my life was just “noise.” I had the time to identify my priorities in life and begin to imagine a life in which my actions and pursuits align with those priorities. And of course, I came to really appreciate the world we live in, particularly how inspiring the natural world is.

I met so many different people along the Trail. Many of us came together and formed trail families (or “tramilies”), groups of friends with common interests and goals. I was with my first “tramily” for 700 miles. Then I met another woman with whom I hiked on and off for the rest of the Trail through to Maine. I know I will be lifelong friends with some of these people. There is something really special about the thru hike experience, so I would absolutely do it again. I’m already considering the Pacific Crest Trail, which is 2,600 miles from Mexico to Canada.

Manish: Returning to work after hiking the Trail, what is the one thing you appreciated the most?

Janelle: I have found an inner peace and contentment in life. I have noticed that things roll off my back more naturally and I’m in less of a hurry. The Trail definitely gives you a certain confidence and fortitude to face and surpass seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And a sincere appreciation for the small things. On the Trail, people known as “trail angels” give freely of their time and resources to help virtual strangers, just because you’re a long distance hiker. Those little acts of kindness such as a ride into town or a candy bar could often mean the difference between quitting or not. No kindness is ever too small if it means not acting at all.

Manish: Any words of wisdom for other young professionals who are inspired by your story?

Janelle: Don’t let your current position determine your future trajectory. If there is something you are passionate about, find a way to pursue it and integrate it into your life now instead of waiting for the perfect moment or experience. If you don’t feel like you’re ready for a giant leap, take it one step at a time. You will find that when you look back at your progress, you are much farther along than you ever anticipated. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes either. It may cause a temporary delay or set back, but isn’t that where we often grow the most, when faced with new and unforeseen challenges? Just keep pushing forward.