Aspen Challenge Returns to In-Person Programming in Miami

By Molly Pencke, Bezos Scholars Program Manager

8 min

Aspen Challenge works with large urban school districts to provide inspiration, tools, and a platform for young people to design solutions to some of the most critical problems humanity faces. Inspired by the Bezos Scholars Program model, the program was launched by the Aspen Institute and supported by the Bezos Family Foundation. 

Each year, teams of students and educators from 20 high schools in two partner cities use their imagination, enthusiasm, competitive spirit and sense of global citizenship to design innovative solutions for specific challenges impacting their city. Challenges are launched from leading thinkers focused on issues identified by youth in each partner city and teams choose their challenge based on passion, relevance, feasibility and sustainability. 

AC Miami crowd 2

January 2019 was the initial launch of Aspen Challenge Miami which was also the last trip I was able to take before the pandemic shut down schools and cities across the globe. We were never able to return for the competition which was postponed and eventually held virtually in 2020. Regardless of the pandemic, the Aspen Challenge team was dedicated to safely carrying out their commitment to the schools and communities they engaged throughout Miami Dade County.  

This February, when my plane landed and I waited to deboard, the warm, humid Miami heat started to seep into the plane. I shed two of my four layers, having just taken a red eye from cold, dark Seattle. My Lyft driver navigated the constant Miami traffic with ease and dropped me off outside of the hotel I left right before the pandemic hit.  

Walking into the second year of the opening forum event, held in downtown Miami at a Florida International Universities Campus, reminded me of just how far we have come and all that we have been through. After getting my obligatory COVID nose swab and test, I walked into the event space and was blasted with frigid air conditioning and multiple hugs from 2021 Scholars I had been working with virtually over the last eight months. It was amazing to get to be together in person while sharing space at such an inspiring event. Honestly, I was not sure if I would get the opportunity to safely return to Miami again. It was a surreal experience and made the opportunity to be there and bear witness to the power of the program all the more special. 

2021 FL Scholars and BSP team

From left to right: Foundation staff Chris Plutte with 2021 Scholars Flavia Nunez, Ammi Hernandez, and Gabrel Gerig, next to Mike Bezos and Molly Pencke from the Foundation and Katie Fitzgerald, the Director of Aspen Challenge.

While grabbing a snack near speakers blaring current pop songs, I connected with Luz Andablo, a student from Miami Sunset Senior High School who shared some of her first impressions of the event and opportunity. “The challenges launched so far are really affecting teens in Miami. When I walked in, I was kind of shocked. It was so bright, fun, and welcoming. At my school, the buzz is going to get louder once we pick our challenge and start our project. When I am back in eight weeks at the competition, I want to have grown to be more open to different perspectives and learn from other teams about the challenges they selected and how they approached their solutions.”    

Diana Chao was one of five speakers who launched challenges this year. She challenged participants to design a program to strengthen their community's mental health by appreciating our unique identities and the infinite variations of the human experience. Diana was a moving speaker who strongly and vulnerably shared her experiences being a first-generation Chinese American immigrant from Southern California with bipolar disorder. After surviving a series of suicide attempts as a young person, she found healing from an unexpected source: writing. When she was a sophomore in high school, she launched Letters to Strangers, which has since grown into a global youth-run organization that seeks to destigmatize mental illness and increase access to affordable, quality treatment.

AC Miami speaker-Diana Chao

Diana, now 22, was definitely one of the youngest speakers at the event, closest in age to student participants and showcased that age does not relate to ability to make an impact. She beautifully tied together how interconnected we all are and how much mental health resources are needed, especially for those from BIPOC and immigrant communities. Her deep passion and commitment to being a supporter, advocate, and ally to people—especially youth—struggling with mental health was palpable. She and her team also created the world’s first Youth-for-Youth Mental Health Guidebook and just launched a Teachers' Handbook: Mental Health Curriculum Guide

I asked Olivia Toro, Aspen Challenge’s Senior Program Associate, what she was most impressed with about participants in Miami. “I am most impressed with how outspoken they are across the board,” she said. “I see them embody that in the way they engage, ask questions and show up and am so excited about the projects they are going to create.” 

I can’t wait to see what each team dreams up and actualizes with their projects either. My favorite part is watching student’s leadership efficacy and civic engagement grow while learning about the ripple effects their engagement and collaboration has on their families, school, and surrounding communities.  

Aspen Challenge also launches in New Orleans this year and we’re all excited to get to know a new city and the incredible schools, students, and educators there. This program provides such a needed platform, meeting students where they are with support and resources so they can take tangible action on an issue they’re passionate about. Who wouldn’t want to support that?