From illness to inspiration: Online student meets adversity with adventure

Sierra Needles
Sierra Needles, CSU Online Journalism and Media Communications student

Sierra Needles enjoyed traveling from a young age, but a life-altering diagnosis in high school reshaped her relationship with adventure.

Needles found out she had Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, a chronic illness that causes severe dizziness, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, fatigue and more.

Her dreams of summitting mountains drifted further away as the stairs to her bedroom became harder and harder to climb, eventually leaving the 16-year-old couch-ridden on the first floor of her home. During especially trying times, she was able to find solace and inspiration by exploring the world through a screen.

Sierra Needles on the couch with her dog Lilly
Sierra Needles on the couch with her dog Lilly, where she would spend hours watching YouTube travel vlogs.

She would spend hours watching travelers sharing their experiences on YouTube vlogs, drawing inspiration from the cultures, cuisines and adventures she saw online. However, it still felt like the videos weren’t made for her – no one was navigating the world with a chronic illness.

Over time, she learned techniques for successfully traveling with her physical limitations in mind. However, it wasn’t until after she had enrolled in CSU’s online journalism bachelor’s program that she developed the skills and expertise to address the lack of resources herself.

In 2022, she decided to take on one of her biggest dreams and launched a travel blog to help share tips and resources for other adventurous travelers struggling with chronic illnesses who didn’t want to settle for the couch.

Finding the next path forward

Needles began her educational journey at Northern Wyoming Community College, where she earned her Associate of Science in general Studies, graduating with High Honors.

While exploring options to complete her Bachelor’s degree, she considered how a traditional on-campus experience might be impacted by her illness. She knew that traversing a campus and being in-person for long periods of time would be difficult.

“I was kind of torn once I had finished my associates degree. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Then an email from CSU Online hit my inbox at just the right time,” Needles said. 

At the time, CSU had recently launched a new online bachelor’s degree program in Journalism and Media Communication (J.M.C.). “I took a look at the program and it aligned with everything I was interested in studying,” she said. “It just felt right.” 

About CSU’s Online Journalism Program

CSU’s online journalism bachelor’s degree builds foundational communication skills that are sought after in nearly any industry. Leverage your creativity and your interest in world events, storytelling, and media technology to earn a degree that can lead to a wide variety of careers. Learn more about the program and take your learning to the next level.

Making connections and finding community online

Now a senior in the J.M.C. program, Needles has become a stand-out student, according to her professors. Regardless of her not being on-campus or in-person, she has been able to create connections, community, and strong relationships with faculty. 

Michelle Ancell, a J.M.C. professor, immediately took note of Needles and her story. The two originally met during the fall of 2021 in a class Ancell was teaching.

“Sierra is very diligent, detail-oriented, and methodical,” Ancell said. “She was great about always reaching out and asking questions.” 

Their personal connection would deepen and expand even further in the spring of 2022.

Pushing beyond boundaries

Needles had dreamed of studying abroad in Italy, but knew that the intense, regimented schedule was not something that appealed to her. She needed to travel at her own pace, in a way that made sense for her physical ability level, so she decided to find a way to study abroad without the confines of a rigidly structured program.

That’s when Needles reached out to Ancell, asking her to consider becoming a faculty advisor for an independent study program that would allow Needles to study in Hawaii – a request that inspired a connection beyond the classroom. 

“She shared with me that she has rheumatoid arthritis,” Needles said. “It definitely strengthened our relationship.”

When Ancell learned about Needles’ chronic illness, it reminded her of when she was diagnosed with her own chronic illness and the struggles she faced. 

“It was really difficult physically and psychologically – it really wore on me,” Ancell said. “So when I would talk to Sierra, I knew she was a young woman who was going through something that was much more debilitating than what I went through, but she was going through it at 20 years old.”Ancell agreed to be Needles’ required independent study advisor.

A view of the cinder cones throughout Haleakalā’s crater in Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui in Hawaii
A view of the cinder cones throughout Haleakalā’s crater in Haleakalā National Park on the island of Maui in Hawaii. (NPS/Sierra Needles)

“The purpose and value of visiting a national park is not measured by the hikes one can complete. Rather it is the connection one feels to the preserved natural and cultural resources.”

– Sierra Needles

Chronically Exploring

Her trip to Hawaii was the start of something special, something that Needles and Ancell probably never saw coming. As part of her assignments, Needles had to write blog posts about her travels. At first this was more of an academic venture, but eventually a new blog called Chronically Exploring became Needles’ personal brand, developed from her three passions in life: writing, travel, and health advocacy.

Meanwhile, CSU professor Joseph Champ heard that the National Park Service was looking for stories from underrepresented groups. After returning from Hawaii, Needles and Champ connected to discuss publishing a piece about her drive to the summit of Haleakalā National Park

The article is now available on The following excerpt captures the impact of her experience:

“I am sharing my victory at Haleakalā National Park in hopes that it can be an inspiration and resource for someone else who is planning a visit or for someone who previously thought visiting this park would be inaccessible.

My illness has not taken away from my experiences in the parks. The purpose and value of visiting a national park is not measured by the hikes one can complete. Rather it is the connection one feels to the preserved natural and cultural resources that determines one’s enjoyment of the parks.”

A Future Full of Possibilities

With her anticipated graduation coming up in May, Needles hopes to grow her travel and health advocacy blog into a career.

From her chronic illness diagnosis in 2016 to starting her own blogging venture in 2022, Needles has shown what it means to be Stalwart. 

To keep up with Sierra’s travels and learn more about her story, visit: