When I looked up my soon-to-be suitemate Nicola Soekoe ’16 on Facebook before freshman year started, I found her profile brimming with photos from South African beaches and Brazilian clubs. I noticed that she was, strangely, wearing the same top in all of them. It was a plain T-shirt, with the bold lowercase words “i am nicola” emblazoned ostentatiously across it. I felt a pang of anxiety: what kind of person would wear such a flagrantly egocentric shirt in every one of her pictures? I braced myself for a year full of suitemate friction.
After examining Nicola’s page further, I discovered that she is a participant in the I Am Challenge, an organization started by New Zealander Daniel Cullum five years ago. The Challenge began when Cullum accepted a friend’s dare to wear an “i am dan” shirt every day for a year. He combined the shirt with his desire to become more charitably involved by asking his friends and family to sponsor him for every day he wore the shirt. In a year, he had raised enough money to build a well for a Tanzanian community and had also inspired 25 people to join him with shirts of their own.
Now there are about 100 Challengers in eight countries — most participants are from New Zealand, but some live in India, Cyprus, and Kuwait, among other places. Current Challengers receive 10 T-shirts in the mail when they sign up. They can choose which color shirts they would like, but have no say in the font of the words: every T-shirt is printed with the same bold, all-lowercase letters. Dan says he chose that font because it looked welcoming, and the lowercase words make the shirt more informal and less “in your face.”
Maru Filiba ’15, a former participant and current international director for the organization, sees the Challenge as a transition instrument, a “bridge” that connects “kids that have the potential to really be involved” with “organizations that don’t really know how to reach out.” The organization for which Nicola is fundraising is her own recently founded charity With Love from the World, which aims to subsidize quality education for disadvantaged South African youth. She is sending everything to Nontsikelelo Fokazi, a 12-year-old girl she met while coaching debate at a poor primary school in Cape Town. Despite the fact that Ntsiki lives in a shack and attends one of Cape Town’s worst schools, Nicola found her bright and engaged when she met her a few months ago and became determined to send her to a better school. While looking online for a means of funding, she found Maru’s TedxYale talk about the Challenge on YouTube. “I was thinking, it’s a cool idea but I couldn’t do it,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Wait, I could [do it]. It’s just one year. Anyone can.’ So, I signed up.”
Nicola is doing the Challenge primarily for her charity and for Ntsiki, but a useful fringe benefit of the shirt is its ability to raise awareness of her cause among the general population: anyone who asks her about her shirt — that is, almost everyone she meets — leaves the conversation knowing something about South Africa’s education crisis.
For Nancy Xia ’15, who is not participating in the Challenge in order to raise money, these awkward run-ins with people are what make the Challenge valuable. “I grew up on the more introverted side,” she says, “and putting myself out there is kind of a big thing to do.” At first, she found it difficult to put on the shirt in the morning. “It’s the first couple of months that are the hardest, because you’re not really sure how to deal with everyone asking you questions about the shirt,” she says. “You suddenly get a lot more attention than you’re used to. That’s something that’s kind of hard to deal with.” She says wearing the shirt for half a year now has made her feel more prepared in general for unknown social situations. “I’ve totally learned to deal with it now,” she says. “When people start talking to me, I become very happy about it.”
For most Yalie Challengers, wearing the shirt becomes routine after at most a few months, and the urge to wear other tops diminishes. Things are different for Luifer Schachner ’15 though. Because his nickname, a common Venezuelan amalgam of “Luis” and “Fernando,” is easily misread as “Lucifer,” he is the subject of many harsher stares and questions. He found it a daily challenge to wear the shirt when he was in the American South over the summer, and people there frequently accosted him about why he wore the phrase “i am luifer.”
While Luifer has persisted because he finds the Challenge valuable in its anti-materialism message, some people don’t: Monica Hannush ’15 began the Challenge last year and stopped after a few months. She said by email that instead of promoting anti- materialism, the Challenge made her buy more accessories to compensate for her unvarying tops. “My clothes are among my most important forms of expression,” she says, “and the Challenge felt like it was stripping me of that expression.” She says that to most people she knows on campus, the Challenge seems “narcissistic” and “self-advertising,” and that “it’s making no impact at Yale,” except in that some people know others’ names without having met them before.
Monica’s experience speaks to the fact that the Challenge affects people in unpredictable ways, and that it is not for everyone. For Nicola, it is primarily a vehicle for raising funds and awareness; for Luifer, it is an everyday struggle to explain, as well as an anti-materialist statement; for Nancy, it is an agent for personal transformation; but for Monica, it was a discomfort and a hindrance to her personal goals. It works on multiple levels, and, sometimes, does not work at all.
Despite the Challenge’s potential to fail, most people who start it choose to complete it. Perhaps this is because for almost everyone, no matter why or how they participate in the Challenge, it connects them with things larger than themselves. It is a comfort, as Nicola explains it: “I can constantly feel like I’m not forgetting that part of me that fights,” she says. “Even though I’ve got my own life, I’m still a part of that fight.”