Finding Fortitude and Friendship on the Senior Challenge Trail

Durham Academy’s Senior Challenge — a five-day backpacking, orienteering adventure in the North Carolina mountains — occurs at the beginning of the school year. At least that’s what usually happens. But in a year in which very few things took place as usual, members of the Class of 2021 went on Senior Challenge in late May, becoming the 42nd DA senior class to test their mettle hiking, rappelling, cooking over campfires and sleeping under the stars. 

Senior Challenge Group

The class is divided into small groups — Senior Challenge director Greg Murray takes care to mix the seniors up and avoid putting groups of friends together — and that was the case again this year. Seniors are called to test themselves physically, emotionally and socially, to grow in ways they might not expect and that, indeed, happened on this 42nd annual Senior Challenge. 

Here’s what several seniors had to say Saturday morning as they prepared to board buses at the Black Mountain Outdoor Center for the ride back to Durham Academy. Thanks go to Murray — who has helped with Senior Challenge since 1986 and served as director of the program since 2005 — and to Upper School history teacher Dr. Rob Policelli, who went on Senior Challenge and recorded these comments.

Anna Brent-Levenstein ’21: “Before I came on Senior Challenge, I was really apprehensive. In fact, at the beginning, I hadn't even signed up because I don't really consider myself to be an outdoorsy person. I thought the entire time was just going to be a bunch of me really hating being in the outdoors. I feel like there were like two things that really surprised me and made this one of the best experiences of my life.

The first thing is that the group dynamic was just so strong. People that I had never talked to or had one class or activity with, I immediately became like best friends with them just because we were all in this situation. Everyone really bought into it. I think that's what created this really special dynamic where we were all going through this experience together and we learned so much about each other.

And the second thing is that I've never appreciated simple joys that much. Because you're away from your phone and all of the other distracting elements, stressors of the real world, we would finish a hard hike and then just get to a beautiful waterfall. I never felt that serenely happy. Or we'd all just run into a creek that we found the third day because we were so hot. It was just those moments that really were just the best culmination, especially on such a tough, grueling senior year. It just — it made me so happy — and I'm so happy to have had it.”

Gavin Schulz ’21:  “I think when I got to the bus, I was pretty nervous about my group because we don't get it until we're there. When I got my group, I was just really excited to go up and be shuttled to the mountain and go on my journey. And now that I'm back and I'm just super fulfilled with what I was able to do and honestly sad that it ended. 

And I'm really proud of myself and my classmates — the 90 people who decided they wanted to come out and do this — especially in a year when we haven't had the opportunity to do so many normal things. 

I think it was perfect for this year that we ended with Senior Challenge instead of starting with it. To wrap up the group and have a good and last hurrah, just starting that last week where we [will] have prom and graduation. It was just an awesome time, honestly, my favorite Durham Academy experience.”

Elle Gross ’21: “I was really excited to do Senior Challenge in the first place. I knew I was going to have a lot of fun, but I was really surprised that each day really was a new challenge. New things were thrown at us all the time, and you kind of had to adapt. That was a really fun opportunity that I wasn't really expecting because I am pretty outdoorsy and like that kind of stuff. So that was great for me.”

Emma Larson ’21: “I also found that it was just a great opportunity to get to know people from your class that you don't really know that well. And so you basically got to make some new friends and make some good lasting memories with people from your class before you head off to college.”

Kathleen Donovan ’21: “I really don't think that having it at the end of the year as opposed to the beginning took away anything. I think it really added something as a final goodbye with your classmates, just to talk to people who maybe you haven't talked to in like 14 years. And I think that was really special.”

Caroline Aldridge ’21: “Everyone that I've talked to has said they enjoyed an experience where they got to be surprised at what they're capable of. I did not think I would be able to do a lot of the things or most things and was able to, and that was definitely something that everyone was really proud of.”

Emma Rossilli ’21: “I was really dreading the trip because I didn't think I would be able to do it or have fun. But in the end, it was a great experience to culminate my high school experience in my senior year, and I'm really glad I ended up going.”

Elle Gross: “One last thing that I want to say is that even though it was super challenging and was different than any of us expected, the biggest part of it was that we got to do it together, which I know sounds incredibly cheesy. Getting to do it with other people made it a million times more fun. Alone it just would have been a brutal challenge, but together it was a great experience.”

Toby Harris ’21: “Senior Challenge is a great way to bring all the seniors together, I think. You know, my group didn't have really super close friends, but it was great to get to know a lot of different people, build those connections. I think our group is definitely planning on getting together after this. 

I think probably the most interesting, maybe surprising part, was seeing a bear. We did have a bear infiltrate our campsite. But yeah, overall, I had a pretty good time. Despite some rough patches, the trip overall was a really good trip and thank you to DA and Black Mountain Expeditions for putting it on.”

Maggie Chambliss ’21 and Cecile Meredith ’21 were in the same Senior Challenge group. 

Maggie: “So before this, we didn't have that many classes together and we hadn't really ever talked. But now I feel like we got really close and it's been such a fun experience.”

Cecile: “Yeah, I think before this we just didn't have any chance to be friends. But going through, seeing a challenge together, we got to know each other a little bit better and we have a lot in common that we didn't really know about before. So I think we definitely are going to be friends past this point.”

Lucy Steiner ’21 and Anna Catherine Wilson ’21 decided to interview each other about Senior Challenge. 

Lucy: “What was your favorite part of your group this week?”

Anna Catherine: “You know, I have to say, there are a lot of people in my group that I just didn't really know beforehand. And now, I'm really good friends with them. We also shared a lot of laughs, especially in the kitchen. So, yeah, great trip overall. “

Anna Catherine: “What's your favorite activity you did on Senior Challenge, Lucy?”

Lucy: “I'm definitely going to have to say cooking. We got to mix up the cook groups, really get to know some new people, cook some good food. Pizza was my personal favorite. Great week. Thank you, Mr. Murray.”

Anna Catherine: "Go, Mr. Murray!"

View More Senior Challenge Photos on Flickr