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Challenges Make Young Achievers

November, 2011
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natasha-christina-sNatasha Chang and Christina Arbenz, two senior students at the Western Academy of Beijing, accepted certificates at the British Embassy on September 29th for completing the gold tier of the International Youth Award (IYA). They are the first students in Beijing to achieve this prestigious level of the award.

The large audience that was present at the British Embassy allowed Natasha and Christina to realize for the first time that their dedication to IYA had set an example for their fellow WAB students and made their community proud. After all, they were too busy dedicating the majority of their high school career to a life-changing experience, one that held its fair share of trials and tribulations, to recognize how much their hard work was appreciated.

“It was overwhelming,” Natasha said. “I was surprised about how many people showed up. I felt very honored and flattered that a lot of people said congratulations…”

Their journey began during freshman year in 2008, when they learned of the program’s launch. Christina said she was attracted to the fact that she could do all of the activities she enjoyed in a “structured environment” with focused objectives. Prepared for an interesting road ahead, she and Natasha began the first tier of IYA, the bronze award.

IYA, also called the International Award for Young People and the Duke of Edinburgh award, is an international version of a program that began in the UK in 1956. Students aged 14 to 24 are invited to join and expand their learning experience beyond textbooks and into other important areas of life. To receive an award, students must do volunteer work, achieve physical improvement, develop a preexisting or new skill, travel abroad and live independently. A three-tier system of bronze, silver and gold is in place so that a participant has the opportunity to complete the final category, living independently, to earn a Gold award.

christina-hiking-sFor Natasha and Christina, the initial tasks were feasible, but the most difficult part of the process was incorporating them into their hectic first-year schedule. They had to imagine what skill and physical ability they would like to pursue or improve, and then spend six months working toward a series of self-set goals.

Natasha chose to pursue swimming and Christina picked soccer. Both devoted community service time to Hope Foster Homes. Meanwhile, the school organized a weekly class where they learned various outdoor skills, such as first-aid training, survival and kayaking. When they needed guidance in goal setting or making progress toward their objectives, their school supervisors were always available. At times, the supervisors checked in on the students to encourage them or aid in relieving stressful situations.

At the end of the six months, Natasha and Christina received the bronze award along with their 15 peers who began the award with them. However, they both didn’t want to stop there. The next step for them was choosing new skills, setting new goals and setting their sights on the silver award. Thirteen of the students who completed the bronze would join them.

During the silver challenge, Natasha did personal fitness, vocal lessons, and volunteered for her school paper, the Inkblot. Christina did cooking and swimming and also wrote for Inkblot. Christina said that cooking would end up being the most challenging of all the skills she attempted, “I really cannot do anything in the kitchen other than open the cookie jar.” Looking to her mom, Annette Arbenz, as her guide, she attempted a recipe every week. She said that even though she often found herself missing a key step or ingredient that would destroy the end product, her skill was gradually progressing.

“As time passed, my cooking skills improved ever so slightly and managed to improve my self motivation to cook and my self confidence in my own cooking,” Christina said. “Although I am not yet a good cook and have not reached the ‘cook for other people’ stage, the process of learning the basics during IYA has allowed for me to enjoy cooking every now and again and will definitely help me in the future when I am at a university.

Despite setbacks, Natasha and Christina were again determined to keep going by the end of the 12 months. With two successful years and two awards behind them, they moved into the third year of high school.

“I just wanted to go to the next level each time and keep pushing myself and keep trying things out,” Natasha recalled. “Because you can’t do the same challenges for each level. I knew, if I’m done with this one, I can tackle something else in the next level. That’s really what pushed me.”

They would work on achieving the Gold award for 18 months. This time, their abilities would be tested in a completely different way, leading Natasha to spend one week in a bait shop and Christina to tackle treacherous thunderstorms in the mountains.

natasha-harry-potter-sNatasha traveled with her mom, dad and younger sister to the US for a six-week road trip from New York to Los Angeles, stopping in Nebraska to do a one-week residency. Her job: handing out minnows to fisherman in an RV park in Nebraska. “The experience itself was very interesting,” she said. “And the journey itself really opened my eyes to different cultures.”

Meanwhile Christina’s mother and her son accompanied Christina during a five-day hike in the Swiss Alps for the gold award. Not wanting to give up and turn back in the middle of the trek, Christina consulted her phone to research an alternative route so that she could achieve her goal. Christina said that pushing past the challenges to reach her objectives was the most rewarding part of the award for her.

“She just wanted to do it and pulled through, and that was, for her, very valuable to see we can go further than you actually think,” said Annette.

When Christina and Natasha weren’t conquering their fears thousands of miles away from home, they were back in Beijing planning for their charity projects. Natasha organized a fashion show, held on March 2nd at the Founders Theatre in the WAB elementary school, with proceeds going to a non-profit organization called Falling Whistles, which aids child soldiers in Congo. She gathered a group of friends to make clothes to be modeled, and even applied her creativity in another way to raise money.

“We found four guys, and people paid money to draw on the guys. They modeled for the second half,” Natasha said, adding that it was the highlight of the event. They raised 13,000 RMB to donate to the organization.

christina-ayi-dinner-s1Meanwhile, Christina was putting one of her hobbies to use by taking pictures to make cards that would help raise money for a special dinner for WAB’s cleaning staff. She went through hurdles trying to organize the meal, contacting and anxiously awaiting responses from a broad range of people who would satisfy tasks such as giving approval for the event, providing gifts and prizes, catering and music. Christina also had to locate volunteers to help during the dinner, and most importantly, use Chinese to explain to the Ayi’s the purpose of the event. 

During a year’s worth of planning, Christina also had to deal with challenges such as unanswered emails about confirming the venue, not as many cards selling as planned and not receiving RSVP’s from the Ayi’s. But dedication to the cause kept Christina motivated and her efforts would, at last, prove successful.

“It was the most rewarding out of all four years of doing the award simply because of the smiles that I received and continue receiving,” she said. “It was really nice to get to know a little bit about the Ayi’s.”

Annette said that from a parent’s perspective, she admires the stamina Christina and Natasha have maintained throughout their year of goal setting.

“It teaches the kids to feel committed to something for a longer term than just until interest starts waning,” Anna said. “I think this is really valuable for them to take away, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they actually end up at the end of the road and they can say ‘I really did this and I did this by committing over a long period of time.’”


By Jessica Rapp


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