Teenagers don’t get enough credit. We have a lot on our plates. High school can become a highly stressful environment, due to factors such as the college admissions process and the idea of our looming independence ahead. We often find ourselves obsessing over the qualities that we lack, (what can’t be written on an application or boasted about in an essay), rather than the possibilities of what we can offer. Some high schoolers, however, can be found thinking about not just themselves, but also others, and solving the problems that their communities face, such as the winners of this year’s Aspen Challenge. These are the very teenagers that deserve more credit, and they give me copious amounts of hope for the trajectory of our generation.
The students were challenged to come up with solutions to relevant and pervasive issues, such as combating violence and segregation within their schools by promoting inclusivity and using methods that appeal to everyone, decreasing the disastrous effects of California’s drought, or fighting for better food options for their schools and cities.
Students from Washington Metropolitan School of Washington, DC, created an initiative using dialogue, media, and the arts to teach youth to avoid violence. George Washington High School in Denver, CO, allowed students to use literature, music, and art to express their feelings about identity and race.
Showing a different side of Washington, DC, than is usually witnessed in the media, The SEED School created an initiative to make healthy food more accessible to their community, while Frank W. Ballou Senior High School introduced a highly necessary peer-mediation program to benefit their peers. The Los Angeles, CA, team from Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet High School showcased their strategies to fight the drought plaguing the area, as well as a legislative proposal for water-use schedules.
Witnessing the winners present these brilliant ideas, I understood why the Aspen Challenge participants are so well respected around the Aspen Institute. They personify the idea that today’s youth can grapple with extraordinarily difficult questions that present no clear answer, think in a way that surpasses themselves and their personal progress, and improves the lives of their peers, neighbors, and fellow humans.
The students who participated in and won the Aspen Challenge serve as proof that by working with each other and refusing to accept the wrong that we see around us, teenagers are just as capable as adults at solving world issues. Because the truth is, yes, us high schoolers should prioritize schoolwork and standardized testing; we know that. But to limit this pivotal epoch in our lives to only focus on ourselves and how we appear on a sheet of paper is, frankly, a complete waste of valuable time.
An Aspen Challenge winner and George Washington High School student named Sara Hill told me that her Challenge experience taught her to “balance the opinions of others with your own,” a skill that most of us don’t possess, but should. And with that, in the spirit of the Aspen Ideas Festival, I might have a big idea: high school could be the perfect place to encourage problem solving. It certainly worked for the winners of the Aspen Challenge. There is absolutely no age requirement for innovation, and who better to take on the world’s problems than those who will lead in years to come.