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News | June 27, 2024

Challenge Academy graduates equipped to face more promising future

By Vaughn R. Larson Challenge Academy

The skies were overcast, but the future was bright for 112 graduating cadets of the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy June 19 as they graduated from the rigorous first phase of a program that instilled values and disciplines to prepare them for success.

Joni Mathews, Challenge Academy director, congratulated the cadets on their achievements, but encouraged them to maintain the character they developed during their 22-week residential phase at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

“Your character guides your thoughts,” Mathews said. “Your thoughts guide your choices. Your choices guide your actions. It will be challenged and tested by outside influences.

“It is your job to continue to strengthen your character when you leave today,” Mathews continued, “but I have seen personally how strong each of you have become. If you’re ever in doubt or you’re in a difficult situation, remember you can make the right choice.”

Challenge Academy is a voluntary, cost-free alternative education program that reshapes the lives of students age 16 to 19 who are at risk of not graduating high school. Based on Fort McCoy, Wisconsin, the Academy uses a military-styled environment and state-certified teachers and counselors to build cadets’ academic capabilities, character, self-confidence and personal discipline. The program consists of two phases — a 22-week residential phase at Fort McCoy, and a 12-month post-residential phase in which the graduated cadet carries out their action plan developed in Phase 1 with the help of a mentor.

Mathews shared some statistics from the past 22 weeks. All 112 cadets earned their high school equivalency diploma, and a minimum of seven college credits. 39 cadets read a book cover-to-cover for the first time. 48 cadets ran for a mile for the first time. Collectively, Class 53 cadets consumed 17,400 bowls of cereal, 10,326 pounds of peanut butter and 51,984 bananas. They also mopped more than 208 square miles of floors, learned to wash and fold their own laundry and make their own beds.

“So there’s no excuse now for not helping around the house,” Mathews said.

Brig. Gen. David May, Wisconsin’s interim adjutant general, congratulated the cadets.

“I’ve had the good fortune to visit this class now three times — to hear your stories, answer your questions, and provide words of encouragement,” May said. “You should know that each time I visited, I came with a group of people. And on the way home, we talked about the visit. And to a person, the most common observation was that you inspired us.”

May reminded the families of cadets that their student had changed over the past five months.

“Please continue to support them on their journey as they go from graduates to reintegrate with what comes next,” May said.

Cadet Luke Wesolowski of DePere, Wisconsin, the distinguished honor cadet for Class 52, received the National Guard Institute scholarship in remembrance of the late Maj. Gen. Al Wilkening, a former Wisconsin adjutant general. In his remarks to his fellow cadets, he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity Challenge Academy afforded him. He also spoke of the choices that led him to the Academy — drifting away from friends and family, dropping out of high school, and leaving home. As family and friends continued to reach out to him and express concern, he realized he need to change.

“Signing up for the Academy was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made,” Wesolowski said.

In the early weeks of the residential phase, Wesolowski said Academy staff told him his attitude and behavior had him on the verge of dismissal.

“This felt like a slap in the face,” Wesolowski said. “Reality kicked in, and I got scared.”

Wesolowski went back to the barracks and determined to do things differently — a decision other cadets made in their own way.

“From my first day here until now, I watched each and every one of us change for the best,” he said. “Let’s make our future bright and show the world that we have not just changed, but improved.”

That echoed an encouragement May had spoken earlier.

“When you stumble, give yourself some grace,” May said. “Refocus and move forward. And all along your journey, remember — you inspire us.”

Mark Brunner, from Kewaskum, Wisconsin, is a mentor for Cadet Augustus “Augie” McDonald.

“I’ve known him for a number of years,” Brunner said. “His parents are good friends of ours.”

Brunner said that McDonald now displayed discipline that had not been evident before attending Challenge Academy.

“I think he also has grown character-wise, just in the way he talks to other people — especially adults,” Brunner said. “I really appreciate the Academy and the opportunity to be a mentor.”

Other cadets were recognized during the graduation ceremony:
• Military Honor Cadet — Quentin Hebert, Pulaski, Wisconsin
• Most Improved Cadet — Logan Hoh, Hortonville, Wisconsin
• Academic Honor Cadet — Nolan Dingler, Watertown, Wisconsin
• Best Character Award — Levi Cleveland, Wisconsin Dells
• Company A, 1s Platoon Honor Cadet — Kevin Carrillo-Escareno, Milwaukee
• Company A, 2n Platoon Honor Cadet — Jordan Ayers, La Valle, Wisconsin
• Company B, 1s Platoon Honor Cadet — Edwin Harnack, Janesville, Wisconsin
• Company B, 2n Platoon Honor Cadet — Aracely Martinez-Flores, Green Bay, Wisconsin