Blisters and early mornings

Isle of Mull challenge“Do your research. Don’t be scared to try and do what you always wanted to do. Think of something really challenging”

I spent my summer months at the Mark Evison Foundation helping with their first proper evaluation of their youth programmes; the quote above was one response to the question “What would your advice be to future applicants?” (though it could apply to life in general…).

Anecdotally, the trustees knew there’d been tangible benefits of the foundation’s work – i.e. encouraging young people to plan personal challenges and funding the most motivated teams or individuals to see those challenges through. But, now in their fifth year of giving awards and with plans to expand, they needed something more concrete than anecdotal evidence or the excited emails we got from some of the award-winners returning from their trips.

Two focus groups, dozens of questionnaires, and millions of email reminders later, we got our data (the full report is here). What did we learn? Basically, that the whole process can do a lot for your confidence. That starts at the application stage: anyone who’s had to stand up in front of a panel of strangers and defend their original idea knows how difficult that can be. Teenagers haven’t usually had to do that yet; with MEF awards, they get put on the spot by having to give practical details, explaining why this is going to be a real challenge, and why they want to do it. As one teacher told us, “to cost and plan and present is a life skill. And losing out, failure, is an important part of education.”

For those who are selected, that’s only the start. They then have to make their ideas on paper a reality – researching and planning (sometimes alongside exams), dealing with others in their team (including the inevitable drop-outs), doing the physical training needed, and possibly also fundraising. Some of the teens we asked told us that the preparation stage was the hardest part; many had underestimated it; and in their advice to future applicants, most of them mentioned planning and research.

Then, of course, they have to go and do it – and whether a week-long cycle or a mountain hike or a creative project, most respondents found the actual challenge harder than expected. As one hiker told us, “mentally it was very challenging due to the length of the trip and the constant early mornings, and physically harder due to the stiffness of muscles and infectious blisters exceeding expectations.” Yet, asked if they would do a similar (or harder) challenge again in the future, all respondents said yes – and often they mentioned more ambitious ideas, e.g. going away for longer, or doing the same project on a bigger scale.

One answer, below, to the questions, “how did you feel when completing your challenge?” and “what did you get out of it?” aptly illustrates some of the biggest concerns that teenagers have: dealing with new social situations, making decisions, asserting oneself – and, of course, getting up early.

“I felt relieved, haha. I was pleased to be home however I knew I would miss the company. I am the only child, so I’m not used to company for so long…. We achieved something that seemed challenging, however, we enjoyed it so it wasn’t. I learnt and developed many skills such as timing myself and also waking up early (buses did not come frequently like they do in London). I learnt a lot about myself, and I am keen to be a better person… I formed new friendships and a lot of great memories. I was able to think about my future and what I want to do. I was able to move forward in my athletics and seek a new coach, which I have been afraid to do for a year or two… I became more confident as a person and also felt if I can handle this, I could handle anything. The two other members had known each other since a young age, so I challenged myself to involve myself more than I have in the past and join in.”

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