Giving Back: Memphis Challenge

Giving Back: Memphis Challenge

Memphis Challenge is a talent identification, personal and professional development program for high-achieving students of color from public, private, charter and independent schools across Shelby County. It identifies students in grades 9-12 who go through a core curriculum of social and emotional learning, professionalism, and college preparedness. The program equips students with a foundation of knowledge to press through challenges and make the most of opportunities in life with self-efficacy and resilience.

The organization was founded in 1989 by J.R. “Pitt” Hyde to address the “brain drain” of talented young people of color leaving Memphis after graduating high school and not returning back to their hometown.  Hyde’s vision, “diversity in every aspect of business, professional and community life, is essential if Memphis is to thrive. Our young people are our future, and we must encourage them to return to Memphis after college.”  

Memphis Challenge originally focused only on Seniors, adding a Junior program in 2005 before eventually expanding to cover all high school students. “As we grew, the program evolved,” said Cassandra Webster, Executive Director. “We realized that students and some parents didn’t know that it takes four years to build a GPA. You can’t blow off your Freshman or Sophomore years thinking you can catch up. If we can support students in the ninth and tenth grades, and work to bring them into our Memphis Challenge community of like-minds, then we can help them stay on this trajectory of academic success.”

Workshops consist of 25-30 students per cohort, with a total of 170 students representing 39 different schools this year. Students start in the Fall semester of the academic year and meet monthly through May. The content and programming are intentional and experiential. Students don’t attend lectures; rather, they participate in workshops that empower their decision making and diversify their soft skill sets: from study skills to public speaking, from resume writing to interview skills, from financial fitness to time management.

Memphis Challenge also provides numerous extracurricular programs and projects for its students. For example, the Tell Me A Story series is a program-wide annual project that combines creativity, collaboration, and reflection in student-led projects, ranging from children's storybooks, film, and sculpture.

The organization also focuses on helping students manage stress. “Students today are highly stressed due to the impact of social media, personal challenges, and a fear of what’s happening around them,” said Webster. “They’re afraid they won’t measure up to the expectations they’ve self-imposed or expectations that have been implied by their family, and they fear they won’t be able to succeed in the world.” Memphis Challenge offers students an outlet to discuss their stressors and find a community of empathetic peers who believe in their ability to overcome.

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Students interested in Memphis Challenge go through an online application process starting in January of every year. The application includes a personal statement, an interview with program alums, and a letter of recommendation for select cohorts. Program costs are covered by grants, donations, and corporate partners, meaning that no student is required to pay in order to participate.

Today, over 500 Memphis Challenge alums have returned to Memphis, living out the organizations' mission of “inspiring and developing future Memphis leaders.” Learn more about Memphis Challenge’s mission, impact and ways to donate by visiting memphischallenge.org.

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