Strength in community: Challenge Day embraces growth with return to in-person format


Lucy Ge

Samvita Gautham (11) dances with a partner during one of the bonding activities. After upper school participants linked arms and danced to music, they turned around and shared their answers to a prompting question introduced by a Challenge Day facilitator.

by Anika Maji and Alena Suleiman

“I love my neighbor, especially the ones who… go to Harker!”

A commotion fills the Blackford gym as all students and faculty leap up from their seats and jog to an empty chair across the room. The last individual left standing heads to the center of the circle to deliver the next prompt in the game of “I love my neighbor,” where participants find a new seat if the prompt applies to them.

Over 100 upperclassmen and faculty attended Harker’s third annual Challenge Day event, which took place at the Blackford campus from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m on Sept. 17 and focused on building empathy and compassion.

I think at Harker, we don’t really look past the surface level, maybe because we’re struggling with so much on our own ends. Even though everyone here is so different, there’s probably something that will make you realize that [you’re] not alone.

— Samvita Gautham (11)

Challenge Day is a program designed around fostering a school environment where “everyone is included and thrives,” according to their website. Throughout the day, two facilitators from the Challenge Day organization led various activities focused on fostering empathy and finding common ground — students and faculty shared personal experiences in small groups, engaged in various bonding games, learned about differences between a growth and a fixed mindset, wrote down reflections and practiced moments of mindfulness.   

“It surprised me how really, really good the facilitators were, how excellent they are at their job and what they’ve done and just how effective the different activities and games were in creating this environment where people can start to acknowledge the need to celebrate yourself more and your accomplishments, or the need to practice kindness,” upper school librarian Amy Pelman, who attended the event, said.

Harker’s first-ever Challenge Day took place in Feb. 2020 as an effort to reduce bullying and animosity in the community which opposed the school’s core values. Last year, however, students and faculty attended the event over Zoom — a vastly different format for a program centered around positive interactions between people. This year, during the opening speech, facilitator Katie Salvage noted the change of returning to in-person and asked attendees to be open-minded and refrain from judgement.

“We are going through a crazy and really intense year and a half,” Salvage said. “I promise if you can set aside the rumors, and all the stories you think you know about the people in here, there are folks in this room who are going to be surprised today.”

The Student Diversity Coalition (SDC) introduced this year’s event via a presentation to the upperclassmen at the beginning of September. SDC officer Brooklyn Cicero (12), who had also attended Challenge Day as a sophomore, enjoyed the “cross the line if…” exercise, in which one of the facilitators read out a scenario or experience and attendees would cross the line if it applied to them. She noted the importance of being empathetic towards others.

“As similar Harker students are, we’re also all super duper different and we have our own stories, and I think that we should definitely try to get to know people more before you use stereotypes or rumors that you hear about them,” Brooklyn said.

Along with emphasizing empathy, Challenge Day highlighted the community aspect of school. For other attendees like Samvita Gautham (11), crossing the line with her peers represented their interconnectedness despite the fact that students may have separate social groups.

“I think at Harker, we don’t really look past the surface level, maybe because we’re struggling with so much on our own ends,” Samvita said. “Even though everyone here is so different, there’s probably something that connects you and this other person, probably something that will make you realize that [you’re] not alone.”

Pelman recognized the significance of the supportive environment Challenge Day created and encouraged those interested to participate. 

“There’s something for everybody,” Pelman said. “I think that it would be surprising if somebody didn’t get something positive out of it.”

A previous version of this article misnamed Richard Zhang (11) as Johnathan Zhang (10) in the fourth photo of the slideshow. The article has been updated on Sept. 25 to correct this error.