For a lot of first-year students, coming to college is their first big adventure. For James MacDougall, the University of Denver is just the latest chapter in a life filled with adventure.
In 2011, MacDougall, who describes himself as a “bit of a loner,” spent five months walking the Appalachian Trail by himself.
“I started in January in Georgia, and the first day there was a rainstorm that turned into a blizzard,” he says. “I kept on going. I got the nickname ‘Trailblazer,’ because I was the first person to make it through the Smokeys that year. There was enough snow up there that you couldn’t really follow the trail anymore. So I left the first set of tracks over the ridges, and [other hikers on the trail] just followed me.”
Before that adventure, MacDougall attended St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire, one of the country’s most competitive boarding schools. The experience, he says, prepared him for college life. At DU he plans to study computer science, particularly artificial intelligence.
“I’d like to take some of the applications that were pioneered in artificial intelligence and scale them down and get them into programs that people use every day,” he says. “There are still a lot of things that are only in laboratories and advanced robots, like neural networks and affective computing. I’d like to scale these sorts of programs down into everyday life and find a way to integrate them.”
Adventure has been part of MacDougall’s life since he was born 22 years ago in Australia, where his parents had paused briefly in their quest to sail around the world. MacDougall lived on the boat, where he was home-schooled, for eight years while the boat slowly sailed back to the U.S.
“They always dreamed of sailing around the world, so they sailed from America to Australia over a few years,” he says. “I was born there, and then they continued on. I was just along for the ride.”