Adventure Risk Challenge | Murillo gallops to success |

Adventure Risk Challenge | Murillo gallops to success

Special to the Sun
Vanessa Murillo (left) uses her compass skills to guide the team on an ARC expedition.
Courtesy Will Fassett |

TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — Vanessa Murillo moved from Mexico two years ago to attend high school in the U.S. When she arrived, she had difficulty understanding English. She had trouble with her assignments and understanding the teacher’s instructions. Words would fly by her and she was embarrassed she didn’t comprehend her classmates and couldn’t connect with new friends.

When she arrived at Adventure Risk Challenge, she was quiet and reserved in class. She got frustrated as she tried to express herself in writing, but couldn’t find the right vocabulary words. She felt her thoughts and ideas were being lost in translation. Instead of letting this frustration overwhelm her, Vanessa found a creative way to express it.

In her metaphorical poem, Vanessa compared her language struggles to a horse burdened by a heavy load: “It was like I was pulling a carriage behind me weighed down by punctuation, grammar, listening, reading, speaking.” She described herself as being “trapped behind a fence with a beautiful view.”

By the end of the course, Vanessa had overcome these feelings of being trapped by her English skills. Her confidence blossomed in writing and in speaking abilities. After 40 days of intensive language classes and English-only conversations with her classmates and instructors, she was able to see how far she had come. She wrote clear, well-crafted essays and had no difficulty understanding instructions in class.

Vanessa started to see she could become a college-level writer. Her ARC teammates also recognized her hard work and persistence.

On the final expedition, Vanessa was chosen by her peers as one of two “Guardian Angels.” The “Guardian Angel” is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the group while in the backcountry. Her teammates looked up to her for her strength and selected her as a leader.

Vanessa’s dream is to teach second language learners, saying, “I feel confident now with my English and I can help others when they’re starting to learn.”

She is already teaching English to her eager younger sister. Vanessa passed the TOEFL English proficiency exam in November and plans to attend college in Indiana starting next year.

Following is a personal metaphorical poem Vanessa wrote during her summer with ARC.

I am an Andalusian horse.

Smart, strong, and beautiful

My life started like a baby horse

At first I was with my lovely and strong mom

Always taking care of me

My mom, my beautiful mom

An excellent mother always protecting me from people who can hurt me

Strangers, friends or family members that just think about themselves

My mom, my beautiful mom

Always there for me

Worried about me, keeping me healthy to grow strong

For the day when she wouldn’t be there for me

I felt protected when I was by her side

She’s tall and I am small, her baby horse

But my life started to change

When I was 15 years old

I was moved suddenly from my mom to another stable.

It was dramatic for me

I would cry and cry but that didn’t help me

Every night my face was covered with tears

I missed my mom

She showed me how to be a strong person in many ways

By never giving up, by always being positive and by believing in myself

And to never let people put me down

I remember my first day of high school in the U.S.

I went to all my classes, I was confused

The teachers taught their lessons and I didn’t have any idea what they were saying

I used to get frustrated with myself

I felt trapped behind a fence with a beautiful view

I wanted to go out, trot, and be free

Communicate with my teachers

Express my feelings

Participate in all the class work

And not feel embarrassed because I didn’t know English

I wanted to be with all my friends

Talk with them in English

And gallop through

the middle of the woods

Be surrounded by green plants

To feel alive

And enjoy my freedom

But I couldn’t

It took me 2 years to accomplish my goal

I worked so hard

I didn’t speak my native language

It was like I was pulling a carriage behind me

Weighed down by punctuation, grammar, listening, reading, speaking

But every month I grew stronger and the carriage felt lighter

And now I read books in English

And I’m so proud of myself

Now I’m able to trot, dance

Able to communicate with everyone

Now I’m starting to think of my future

Of being a successful person

Becoming a nurse

And telling my parents

I did it!


Adventure Risk Challenge’s mission is to improve literacy and life skills, expose youth to a range of natural environments and wilderness experiences, and inspire the confidence they need to envision and accomplish goals, succeed in high school, and become engaged, empowered citizens.

In addition to weekly programming within the high schools, ARC offers outdoor adventures at least once each month. Upcoming opportunities for high school youth include skiing and snowboarding at Northstar on March 1, a weekend retreat including skiing/snowboarding March 14-16, and a weekend retreat to Yosemite April 11-13.

Contact Sean McAlindin to sign up at or 510-460-8542.

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