Shelton Challenge Fosters Young Leaders

Students participating in Red Hat Shelton Challenge outdoors

A six-day crash course in development and personal growth, the Red Hat Shelton Challenge immerses high school students in leadership education. Founded by Gen. H. Hugh Shelton and endowed by Ret Hat, the challenge exposes students from all backgrounds to five essential values: honesty, integrity, diversity, social responsibility and compassion. It’s part of Gen. Shelton’s mission of preparing future leaders for success.

The Shelton Challenge, open to rising ninth through twelfth graders, brings students from across the world together for a week of hands-on leadership development. Through service projects, ropes courses and social activities, students practice teamwork, communication, goal-setting, decision-making and reflection.

The program takes an intergenerational approach: High-schoolers, university students and program staff work together and learn from one another during the week. Program alumni can return as peer leaders and coaches/mentors/trainers (CMTs), passing on lessons of their own and building upon their leadership foundation.

Leading the Future

Values-based leadership is at the heart of every program in the Shelton Leadership Center. Learn more about the Center

For Chase Barnhill, the Shelton Challenge played a major role in her time as a student at NC State. When she completed the program as a rising high school senior in 2016, she walked away with a new perspective on how to lead with kindness. She wanted to help others have a similar experience, so she returned in 2017 as a peer leader and in 2018 and 2019 as a CMT. She was a Shelton Leadership Ambassador during her junior and senior years at NC State.

​​“The Shelton Leadership Center makes you sit back and think about yourself, your own personal values and what you do every day,” Barnhill said. “How do your values shape your goals? I value empathy and purpose. I realized that after college I wanted to do social work so I can put my values into action.” 

Barnhill studied political science and criminology at NC State and graduated in 2021. She’s now a volunteer coordinator for Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity through AmeriCorps. Her leadership skills are vital not just to her job but also to her sense of self.

“There are many times I catch myself thinking about why I’m doing what I’m doing and what’s the best way I can be a volunteer coordinator,” Barnhill said. “It’s so important to have reflection and introspection, and learning that at such a young age has been life-changing.”

“The Shelton Leadership Center makes you sit back and think about yourself, your own personal values and what you do every day.”

Like Barnhill, Aileen Rodriguez’s experience in the Shelton Challenge shaped her career. Now the assistant director of NC State’s New Student Programs, Rodriguez’s journey at NC State started with the challenge in 2006. Although she originally wanted to attend college in Texas, Rodriguez met so many friends through the program that she decided to go to NC State. Throughout her time as a student, she remained involved with the Shelton Challenge, becoming a peer leader, a CMT and an intern. Even now she helps recruit volunteers and staff members. 

“I believe in the program, its mission and its values,” Rodriguez said. “I know how impactful the program can be personally. It opened the doors for me to attend the university, and that keeps me connected. Now that I work at the university in student affairs, I feel that connection more deeply.”

The Shelton Challenge nurtures students’ individual leadership styles. At the beginning of the week, participants’ comfort with leadership varies. Some may not feel like leaders when they arrive, some may want to start a student group and some may be preparing to take on leadership positions in clubs or sports. But every participant is encouraged to have an active role throughout the process.

“You may think it’s a week of people talking to you about leadership experience, but it’s not,” Rodriguez said. “You’re involved in what leadership looks like. There are so many opportunities for you to be a part of the group and part of the bigger program. We see people excel from being shy to using their voice for good.”

“We see people excel from being shy to using their voice for good.”

While the Shelton Leadership Center is based at NC State, the Shelton Challenge has taken place at several schools in North Carolina and beyond, including Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Urbana University in Ohio, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana in Honduras. The challenge’s impact carries on Gen. Shelton’s mission of fostering leadership in communities around the world. 

“As a university, we don’t want to be a place that’s confined to just our students,” Turlington said. “We want to reach out to our whole community so all students can have access to this type of leadership development.”

And the program doesn’t just instill lifelong lessons; it also facilitates lifelong friendships. Throughout Barnhill’s academic and professional career, she’s been encouraged by friends and mentors she’s met through the challenge. They all value honesty, integrity, diversity, social responsibility and compassion, just like Gen. Shelton.

“The connections and relationships I’ve built through the Shelton Leadership Center have literally changed my life,” Barnhill said. “The experience has made me want to be the person I really want to be, even if that means pushing myself out of my comfort zone. When you have that kind of support, you can do anything.”