Thirty four years ago, Durham Academy, an elite private school located in Durham, North Carolina, partnered with Montreat College to take their Senior students on a six day character-building adventure, aptly called Senior Challenge. This is a mandatory experience that all rising Seniors at Durham Academy must participate in if they want to graduate. The purpose of this wilderness excursion is to give students a better understanding of who they are, what they are capable of, how to be good leaders, and to take responsibility for themselves and others.
Durham Academy students arrive together on Montreat College campus, but then are split up into carefully selected groups. They gather up their gear and head out into the woods with their assigned leaders. Students learn how to camp under tarps, build fires, cook their own meals, backpack, rappel down 100 foot cliffs, navigate unfamiliar terrain, and endure unpredictable weather conditions and wildlife.
Ben Fortson, an Outdoor Education instructor at Montreat College and a coordinator of Senior Challenge, says: “It creates stories between students. It does something that going to class every day just doesn’t do. You learn things about people out in the woods that you’d never learn otherwise. You could spend four years with them in high school and never know who they were. But spend a concentrated amount of time with them in the woods, you find out things that surprise you.”
Since Montreat College is openly Christian and Durham Academy is not, how do the two schools join together and make this annual event work?
Forston explains, “We try to communicate to our leaders that you can lead this trip as Christians – and do it well – without talking about your faith because that’s what this group wants. The beautiful thing is that they’ve come to respect us for that. They know that we are going to do a fantastic job with their group, with their kids.” Forston continues, “We care about them, we love on them, we do some really cool things with them out in the woods, and they always have a great experience. And they know we’re Christians, but they know we’re not going to push it on them. We have quality staff who happen to be Christian staff.”
There is a lot of preparation that goes into making Senior Challenge a success, but Fortson says it is well worth it. This year was the largest group of participants Senior Challenge has ever had, with 93 kids total. But is this just another “extended field trip,” or is this event something they will remember for the rest of their lives? Durham Academy conducted a survey a couple of years ago of all of the DA graduates to find out what had impacted them the most during their time at the school. Ninety-five percent of them said the most significant experience they had during their years at Durham Academy was Senior Challenge. Some graduates have been influenced by Senior Challenge to such an extent that they’ve decided to make Outdoor Education a career.