Students challenged to express themselves

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer


“My Sister,” a commentary about self-body image by former De La Salle student Sofia Podzus, won The Expressions Challenge for Media Arts in 2023. The contest encourages teens to use their creativity to express their feelings.

If Sofia Podszus ever wins an Oscar for film directing, her acceptance speech may include a nod to an arts contest that started in Chicago.

Podszus, a student at The Savannah College of Art & Design, won the Media Arts category in The Expressions Challenge in 2023 for her video “My Sister,” a commentary about self-body image. The piece focuses on a sister’s obsession with keeping up with images on social media, thinking she is ugly and leaving her twin sister to wonder about her own looks.

“I wanted to put out a message that you don’t have to be that obsessed with looks. Everyone is beautiful. You are not just judged by your appearance,” Podszus said. “In my own life, I have seen it in myself, my friends, my sibling — not valuing one’s self as much as you should because of appearances.”

A graduate of De La Salle Institute, the Chicago resident is majoring in film and television at SCAD and hopes one day to direct professionally.

“I first got involved with directing my freshman year of high school with a theater production,” Podszus said. “I then made a number of short films and really enjoyed it.”

The Expressions Challenge by Walgreens encourages high school teens to use their creativity to share how they feel about what is happening in their world, including, but not limited to the impact of social media, cyber bullying, self-esteem, mental health, gender identity, gun violence, social justice, drug abuse and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To tackle the issues and provide a platform for teenagers to articulate their feelings through the arts, The Expressions Challenge by Walgreens was created. Starting in Chicago with 300 students and now celebrating its 15th year in 2024, having engaged 200,000 students nationwide, the competition allows students to express themselves in four artistic categories: Visual Arts, Media Arts, Spoken Word and Creative Writing for a chance to win prizes of up to $2,000.

Podszus said she had plenty of backing when she decided to enter last year’s contest.

“My family and friends were very supportive,” Podszus said. “Some even said my video made them cry.”

Michael Cullinane has been having his Senn High School students participate in The Expression Challenge for seven years and had one of his students win the first year they were part of the contest.

“I really feel that students’ voices need to part of the classroom,” the Chicago teacher said. “They can make a difference in the work they do.”

Cullinane is a 22-year teacher who leads the digital journalism program at Senn. In 2022, he received recognition from Walgreens as a teacher who goes above and beyond ordinary duties to encourage students to creatively express themselves through art, spoken word and videos on real topics to make a difference in their school and community.

He said about half of his Senn students normally opt to participate in the contest.

“I am often surprised by the topic selected by some of the students, about the issues teens face,” Cullinane said. “The ‘After School Special’ in my day was on teen pregnancy or drug. Now it is anxiety and other issues.

“I had one student who had a parent incarcerated and I had no idea until I saw the student’s video. A lot of times they reveal issues through the contest that we were not aware of. It is helpful for students to see that there are others dealing with the same things they are.”

Lauren Stone, director of environmental, social and governance, and interim director of community affairs for Walgreens, said company officials are excited to be in the 15th year of The Expressions Challenge.

“When we originally launched Expressions in 2009 in Chicago and St. Louis, it was designed to address the issues of HIV, AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases among high school students,” Stone said. “We have now gone from two cities to a national competition inviting high school students from all 50 states to enter, asking them to express themselves on whatever topics are most meaningful to them.

“Several themes have emerged over the years with topics: school shootings, stereotypes and Western beauty standards, social media, self-image, body image and relationships. But we have been most surprised that more than half of the entries address teenagers coping with mental health, which is why we expanded our longtime collaboration with Mental Health of America to target youth during a back-to-school campaign. The campaign included a comprehensive set of mental health screening tools and other educational materials available at no cost to schools across the country. We leverage that network so more teens can experience the benefits of entering the Challenge and having this tool to express themselves.”

Senn’s Cullinane said he has done all he can to celebrate the contest in his classroom and would like to see more schools get their students involved.

He said students should put themselves out there and enter The Expressions Challenge.

“You are creating something from scratch. There is no better feeling than to create something that did not exist and is 100 percent your vision,” Cullinane said. “You have the ability to make a difference in other people’s lives. You can have an impact. We see a lot of students struggle with mental health issues. You can help other people, and it can help you build some confidence.”

Past winner Podszus agrees.

“Students should absolutely enter. Whatever interests them — painting, drawing — they should enter,” Podszus said. “Whatever the outcome, you have put yourself out there and created something that matters to you and to others.”

For information on entering the contest, go to