62-Year-Old Student Sets Sights on Finishing a Degree – and the Appalachian Trail

When Tim Richard sets a goal, he really means it. The 62-year-old founder and president of Fermion Government Services even keeps notepads from years ago with goals written on them, big and small, which he reviews from time to time as a reminder of what he has already marked off his “to-do” list.

Now, he’s closing in on two big items: completing his college degree at the University of Virginia and finishing the Appalachian Trail.

Richard, an avid runner and reader who lives in Virginia Beach, is now a student in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program, a part-time degree-completion program in UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies that’s designed for working adults who already have some college.

He founded Fermion in 2006 after working for several other defense contractors. Prior to that, he served a decade in the U.S. Navy submarine fleet. Today, his company provides satellite communications for the government, including audio and video for military hearings and trials. This is a valuable behind-the-scenes support system for families of military service members, who can watch and listen to military trials even though the proceedings are held in courtrooms around the world.

Tim Richard stands in front of a stone building, with a sign reading Appalachian Trail Conservancy

In 2018, Richard began intermittently hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, known to serious hikers as “the AT,” traveling approximately 475 miles from Georgia to Virginia during his first leg. The following year, he began the part-time B.I.S. program, taking online courses in the evenings.

He recently answered some questions about his latest pursuits and why UVA was the right choice.

Q. What inspired you to begin your journey on the Appalachian Trail?

A. In 1991, a high school friend and his girlfriend hiked the whole AT, one week shy of six months. I was 31 at the time, and I always thought that was really neat. I thought, “I want to do that.” So I started seeing where I could fit it in, but guess what? Life takes its toll, and there’s always an excuse to find to not do something, however honorable that excuse might be. I have a family, I have a job, I have other things, and that goal falls down the wish list of things I want to do.

Every year I would see my friend on an annual camping trip. In 2017, I told him that I thought I was finally going to hike the AT the next year. Once you commit to it and verbalize it, you are kind of obligated. You are kind of “on the hook.” I knew I was committed.

Q. What inspired you to begin your journey with UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies not long after that?

A. In the early years of my company, I was doing office work, including accounting. I thought I should get educated on it, so I took a class at Tidewater Community College. I had taken classes on and off from the time I got out of high school in the 1980s, but, while at TCC in 2011, I heard about UVA’s Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies program and decided I wanted to pursue it.

I took the last of my prerequisite courses in 2016. Technology had caught up by then, which was a big plus because I no longer had to travel to take the classes. The goal of earning my bachelor’s degree is important to me. It’s a personal thing.

Q. Why did you choose UVA for your educational journey?

A. Being from Virginia, what’s the most prestigious university in the state? Come on, it’s UVA. It’s a bragging point now to say I am a UVA student. I’m really proud of that.

Q. Is it a coincidence that you chose to pursue both hiking the AT and completing the BIS degree during this era of your life?

A. No one ever told me how I was supposed to act when I got to a particular age. There is a maturity factor now and a prioritization with both goals. When I’m on the AT, it is my job – my everything. There is 100% focus. That becomes my life. It is the same thing when I am taking classes.

Tim Richard stands at the top of a mountain

Q. Are there any parallels or similarities between both experiences thus far?

A. When I went into hiking the trail in 2018, I was very prepared. I did an awful lot of research. I read 13 books about the AT, two books about bears, and two books about snakes. The next phase of the trail keeps the motivation going. I train two to three hours per day with cardio and weight work at the gym. How can I best be prepared?

The same is true for UVA and the BIS degree, I am always preparing and looking ahead. For both, I set the goal. I have set a goal for retirement from my company as well. There is a structured plan around all of those things.

One of the things I learned in the Navy is a that a plan is supposed to work a certain way, but you always develop a contingency or a “what if?” plan. So, in a lot of cases, there is a backup to the plan.

Q. What are your future plans in completing the AT?

A. I have just over 700 miles to go, and the toughest parts are still ahead. I will return to Connecticut, where I left the trail a few weeks ago, and resume hiking this fall or next spring.

Q. What are your future plans after completing the BIS degree at UVA?

A. Even when I get through the program, I am still going to be taking classes or pursuing some endeavor. I don’t want to stop learning. I think people should be multifaceted and have a lot of different things going on.

Will I pursue the master’s degree or a Ph.D.? Probably. I have already mentioned pursuing a master’s degree to my adviser. But that’s the long-term goal, so I back up and focus on where I’m at now. You’re always going to need to reassess. Revising a goal and reworking your plan is OK. After all, I am the one who set the goal.

Read Tim Richard’s trail journal online.

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Rob Seal

Director of Marketing and Communications School of Continuing and Professional Studies