On January 10th and 11th, Challenge Day returned to M-A, this time for the juniors. Challenge Day is an all-day workshop where students partake in a variety of exercises meant to build community and acceptance. As Challenge Day’s website states, “Participants experience powerful love and belonging, connect across lines of difference, and move toward creating the culture they want in their school.” This year it gave students a chance to take a step back from the stress of junior year and open up to their peers.
We believe Challenge Day is a vital part of the M-A experience and necessary for all students. However, only 56.5% of juniors surveyed by the M-A Chronicle said they attended. 2.9% skipped the workshop to attend their classes instead and 36.6% chose to stay home altogether.
Many stories and misconceptions have discouraged student attendance. Challenge Day often gets a bad rap—some say it only offers useless activities and awkward conversations. On the days leading up to the workshop, we heard many of these comments, and we were very curious as to how the experience would actually be.
Towards the start of the workshop, many moments did feel uncomfortable, but throughout the day, our negative perceptions faded away. Specifically, hearing the organization’s leaders share the hardships they have faced made the program feel more personal and encouraged us to reflect on our own lives.
By the end, we genuinely felt connected to the students and parent volunteers in the room, even though most of them we had met just hours before. Unfortunately, many juniors did not get this experience because they decided to skip.
Junior Giselle Martinez was one of many who chose not to attend. “I don’t feel comfortable sharing anything personal and I didn’t want to make those who do, feel uncomfortable,” Martinez said. “My teacher told the class some of the questions we would be asked and I immediately knew that it wasn’t for me.”
Similarly, junior Lexi Chua said that her older sister prepared her for an “awkward and pointless way to spend your day” which led her to think that Challenge Day would not teach her anything new.
It’s understandable that students who heard negative reviews of Challenge Day would decide not to go.
When students close themselves off to the idea of the workshop before even stepping foot onto campus, it defeats the entire purpose of Challenge Day. Even some who chose to attend went in with a negative mindset, thinking that it would only consist of cheesy games and uncomfortable conversations, discouraging them from opening up and fully engaging in the activities.
The question arises: should you still attend Challenge Day even if you don’t think you will open up as much as your peers? The short answer is a definite yes.
Numerous students have mentioned that they left the workshop with a completely different view than they had upon entry. Many decided to participate more than they had anticipated when they saw their peers taking it seriously. And even if they did not feel comfortable participating themselves, their eyes were opened to some of the harsh realities that their fellow students face.
Junior Emiko Edmunds said, “Initially it was a little awkward, but as the instructors began to open up it gave us the confidence to, as well. As we shared in group settings I really valued getting to know more about my peers and what people are going through at M-A. I came in a little suspicious, but was pleasantly surprised by how inspired and empowered I felt leaving the workshop.”
Jeffery Chin-Sell, a math teacher to students learning English, has been a volunteer in the program for over 15 years. He said, “After the first time I volunteered, I noticed the impact with my classes. I had a class which was kind of rough—a lot of kids going in and out of juvie. After Challenge Day, we had a sharing time in class, and one of the tougher guys stood up and shared and just started crying. Everything changed for that class afterwards: the behavioral issues went way down and student engagement and respect toward each other went way up..”
The breakthroughs that happen for students during Challenge Day stand as one of the main reasons that it is beneficial. We witnessed many throughout the day as classmates shared whole new sides of themselves that they had kept hidden for years.
Many of the students we interviewed who did not attend Challenge Day mentioned that their fear of “awkward” activities played a role in their decision to skip. Activities such as “Cross the Line”—where students are asked to step over a tape line on the floor if they identify with certain circumstances that the leaders call out (i.e. “cross the line if you are in foster care”—are perceived as embarrassing or targeting those experiencing difficult situations. However, when students push aside their embarrassment, this activity can help them find similarities with others, which can reduce isolation and build unity.
Chin-Sell said, “I think Cross the Line is definitely the most important part. You could sense the change in the vibe afterward for sure.” Learning about the challenges your classmates face can give you more perspective on their lives and identities.
As we participated in “Cross the Line,” we found ourselves reflecting more on our own lives. Learning about our peers’ struggles grew our sympathy for others. We learned that everyone keeps hardships inside, and we never know what people are truly going through.
Additionally, Challenge Day provides support for students who aren’t able to get much help with mental health at home. Chua, who originally lacked faith in the workshop, stated, “I would really recommend it to people who don’t have a lot of support at home. I think giving them this day to express their feelings that they were bottling up really helps students who don’t regularly have the opportunity to open up to their families.”
Junior Rico Arriaga also recommended Challenge Day to others. He said, “I didn’t expect to come out of it so in touch with my emotions. It’s not every day that we’re vulnerable with each other in that way and seeing everyone express themselves made it a great experience.”
With the rigor and high expectations that come with junior year and the difficulties of many students’ situations, it’s essential to have people to confide in and look to for support. Challenge Day can provide relief and a sense of communal belonging that helps every junior know they are not alone in their struggles.
Altogether, Challenge Day is a valuable part of the M-A experience as it builds community between students and helps them develop deeper understandings of themselves and their classmates. More M-A students should see the value in Challenge Day instead of letting misconceptions discourage them from giving it a chance. If more students took advantage of free, meaningful programs like Challenge Day, our school would be a more empathetic and welcoming place.