NECEDAH, Wis. — Ninety-two formerly at-risk teens from communities across Wisconsin graduated from a 22-week residential program June 17 designed to break down bad habits and instill a value system that leads to positive life choices.
“I’ll bet you thought today would never get here,” Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, said to the cadets of Wisconsin Challenge Academy’s Class 38. He reminded cadets of their early struggles as they adjusted to a strict routine of schedules and punctuality, physical training and classwork, chores and service to community.
“You probably thought, ‘This is crazy — whose idea was this?’” Dunbar said. “And then you had to pause and remember — this was your idea. You asked to come here. You probably had to ask your mom or dad to please bring you here.”
The Challenge Academy reshapes the lives of 16- to 18-year-olds at risk of not graduating high school, using a structured, military-style environment and state-certified teachers and counselors to build cadets’ academic abilities, character, self-confidence, and personal discipline.
Dunbar, the keynote speaker for the commencement ceremony, told cadets that the Empire State Building requires a massive foundation for support. During the past 22 weeks, he said those cadets have built their own impressive foundations.
“You must now decide what kind of life you are going to build on this foundation,” he said, before letting them in on what he called “top-secret” information.
“Life is hard. But it’s much harder if you’re stupid,” Dunbar said. “There are millions of people on this earth going through life making one bad decision after another, and complaining all the while to everybody they meet and in the mirror how hard life is — and you know what? They’re right. Life is hard. But if you’re tough on yourself like you have been these past five and a half months, if you continue to be self-disciplined, you’re going to find that life is much easier on you. Life has a way of working out for men and women who have a plan, and work hard, and are self-disciplined. And if you want proof, just look in the mirror.”
Trey Brandenburg, the distinguished honor graduate, congratulated his fellow cadets for making it to commencement day.
“Commencement means to begin,” Brandenburg said. “Let’s begin.”
Brandenburg, who decided to attend the quasi-military program after his mother dragged him out of bed one day to look at the Wisconsin Challenge Academy website, thanked the Academy staff for leading the cadets from winter into spring — literally and metaphorically.
“We spent most of half of a year here at Challenge Academy working to improve ourselves physically and mentally,” Brandenburg said. “The days felt like an eternity, but the weeks flew by. I look at myself and fellow graduates and realize the changes many of us have made. It wasn’t just the seasons that have changed.”
He said that everyone can point to a misfortune in their life, a reason to settle for less and expect less from themselves. He challenged cadets to accept responsibility to either change that misfortune in their lives, or accept the misfortune.
“Life is both difficult and wonderful, and a lot of that has to do with the choices you make — and those choices depend upon your integrity. You know integrity better than the average teenager,” Brandenburg said. “Out there, after this ceremony, it falls on us. It falls on your integrity to see the truth, to know right from wrong and act on it.”
During the 22-week residential phase, cadets collectively marched more than 15,000 miles to and from class, spent more than 20,000 hours in class and at least 11,000 hours in mandatory study hall. Sixty-eight cadets earned their high school equivalency degree with an average test score of 153, and 32 cadets achieved academic honors. A record number of cadets earned their high school diplomas during this class.
Some cadets will remain in the Sparta, Wisconsin area near Fort McCoy — site of the Wisconsin Challenge Academy campus — as part of a new venture living with host families while working in the community as part of their post-residency transition. The 22-week residency phase precedes a 12-month period working with mentors applying the life lessons learned in Challenge Academy to the real world.
Brandenburg plans to take welding and wildland firefighting classes through Job Corps back home in Blackwell, Wisconsin, and then wants to join the Navy as an underwater welder.
“Cherish this moment, enjoy this victory — but then you need to get out there and build your life upon this foundation,” Dunbar said. “Never forget — you have built this foundation, and it is built upon honor, integrity, discipline, courage and commitment. With that foundation, you can build any life you want to build.”