Until three years ago I was very shy. Arguably, a common trait for countless teenage girls getting to grips with life as a young adult. At least I was fairly happy at school; an environment in which some of my peers felt simply invisible.
Yet shyness was holding me back. I never put myself forward for tasks and dreaded big presentations. Just turned 17 and entering sixth year in a North Lanarkshire comprehensive, I’d vague aspirations to study and train as a veterinary nurse. Looking back at those teenage years, I completely lacked the self-belief that I could achieve in life.
So what changed? In 2014, an unassuming man called Craig Mathieson addressed the school assembly. A polar explorer who had recently founded a charity, The Polar Academy, I listened with interest to his vision to ‘inspire youth through exploration.’ Of course, I didn’t believe I could undertake the physically and mentally demanding feats in the Arctic about which he spoke. I was no ‘outdoorsy’ girl.
Yet his words resonated. Deep down, I was drawn by the hidden desire to prove to myself that I could better my own life. I realised that The Polar Academy was throwing out a lifeline to its young audience to accept a challenge like no other; the chance to quash self-doubt and anxiety and to change direction.
Within days I was ‘in the mix’ for selection. Following a tough weekend at Glenmore Lodge in the Scottish highlands, ten of us (six girls and four boys) found ourselves committed to months of a rigorous daily fitness regime designed to prepare us for a 10-day, unsupported 100km journey in Greenland. Staring at a personal fitness plan thrust in my hand, I’d still no idea about my real potential.
Fast forward eight months and in March 2015 each member of our inaugural Polar Academy expedition team was hauling a 45kg sledge in unforgiving and remote terrain. This was no school trip and I was shocked that though exhausted, I could still find the energy and sheer willpower to keep going.
Navigating across sea-ice, we worked as a team to erect camps and cook in the snow. We motivated and encouraged each other and formed invisible bonds of trust. With every step in the snow, our levels of self-confidence soared.
Too soon we were back in Scotland, tired but elated in our achievement. Tellingly, in all of us a switch had been clicked. For our horizons had changed. We knew we could achieve anything. The cliché ‘can do’ attitude was now ingrained in our DNA.
Today, I’m a young woman working in a veterinary practice. I feel self-assured, confident and comfortable standing up to address school assemblies and even businesses about my experience.
For cynics of the term life-changing initiatives, I am the living, breathing proof that a life can be positively transformed when an individual is simply encouraged to believe in her own abilities.
Next month is the start of a new school term. For older pupils it will be a challenging year. Yet trust me, it’s amazing what can be achieved when an individual commits to redefining his or her own limits.
Rhiannon Walker was a member of the inaugural 2015 Polar Academy expedition team. She has recently been appointed an Ambassador of The Polar Academy.