Editors’ Note: This is a guest opinion by junior Kate Budinger.
Photo credit to Kate Budinger
This past week, my junior class participated in Challenge Day, two years after the intended event was canceled due to the pandemic. Challenge Day is typically held for freshmen with the intent of unifying a new student body through games and stories shared in small groups. It is meant to build empathy by exposing personal vulnerabilities.
It was nice that the school went through the effort to make up for activities missed during the pandemic. However, the maturity discrepancies between freshmen and junior inevitably led to discussions focused more on heavier topics. While it was unifying to hear that classmates often struggle with similar situations, the forced manner in which we had to listen often made both speaker and audience uncomfortable.
Junior Lucas Wang said, “Students waited an extra hour before it started.” This delay made many of my peers—already doubtful of this activity—want to leave altogether.
Junior Carlos Myers-Ascencio said, “I was thinking of going home at first. I wasn’t really feeling it before it actually started, as it was running so late.”
I decided to go to Challenge Day because I wanted to be able to openly connect with my peers in an environment of vulnerability, as I’d only talked to most of my peers in an academic setting.
Some juniors decided to skip Challenge Day altogether. Junior Kasey Prober said, “I skipped Challenge Day because I thought it would just be super overwhelming opening up to people I don’t know and adults that have no mental health training.” This left a much smaller group than expected, resulting in participants only needing to use one of the two gyms set aside.
I feel like experiencing Challenge Day as a junior rather than as a freshman greatly contributed to its awkwardness.
Junior Maria Jakovljevic explained, “Freshmen don’t really know each other, so Challenge Day is a good way to connect with your peers. But for juniors, we know each other, and it’s way more awkward to hear people talk about how their lives are when you’ve known them for three years already and already have a precedent set with your relationship.”
Challenge Day organizer DC looked at the day as one for true community-building. “It gives everybody an opportunity to not only reflect on their own experiences but also have insight into their community and how each community member represents a person in the world,” he explained.
Parents and Challenge Day group leaders urged students to be open-minded, although the constant mumbled complaints from my peers indicated that many weren’t taking this suggestion to heart.
It seemed difficult for a lot of juniors, including myself, to share deep topics with classmates who they see regularly. However, this forced sharing experience seemed to make some juniors feel more connected to their peers.
“The turning point was when my group started sharing their stories. I realized that really forming connections with others is about trusting them and being vulnerable,” said Myers-Ascencio.
While doubtful at first, he ended up grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in Challenge Day. “I’m really glad I came,” he said.
Despite Challenge Day’s intentions, it would be naive to think that students who shared personal details with strangers would continue to confide in them after Challenge Day. If anything, it seems as if students who shared trauma or personal details with peers they talk to in school will be even more reluctant to approach their Challenge Day groups out of fear that someone may bring up a triggering experience shared in confidence.
Additionally, the forced openness that pushed some conversations towards healthy vulnerability and understanding also made others feel uncomfortable. Jakovljevic said, “It was really awkward to hear adults and people my age talk about their deepest feelings in a pretty unsolicited environment where there was no choice but to listen.”
At some points in our small group discussions, conversations got so deep that I felt I needed to share something just as deep as my peers did. While “being real” is important, it’s also important to be able to know your own boundaries. Listening to your peers’ trauma dump can blur your personal boundaries in the moment, I discovered.
The cliques and personal reputations that had been cemented over freshman and sophomore year heightened the awkwardness. Learning personal things about classmates who you already have impressions about forces you to look at them from a new perspective. This seems to be both a blessing and a curse.
While an activity in which students went around sharing things people would only know “if they really knew you” fared well for some students, the prevalence of topics like suicide, depression, and family deaths made this activity difficult for some, including myself. Jakovjevic said, “Although I wasn’t uncomfortable by what they were sharing, it was weird that it was so sudden.”
It’s important to destigmatize talking about heavy topics, but even more important to do so in an environment in which those who are listening have made the active choice to do so. I found it difficult listening to the trauma of my peers at times because I felt like I needed to react in a certain way.
Reflecting back on Challenge Day, it’s impossible to categorize it as simply a “good” or “bad” experience, though I’m sure some of my peers would call it one or the other. I left the day with greater compassion for others and a newfound understanding of the importance of being “real.” However, the means in which I gained these takeaways also left me with a feeling of uneasiness. Shared trauma might unify freshmen, but I don’t think juniors sharing trauma had that effect.