|"I feel prepared to handle the real world now," said Jessica Knofla, the class assistant corps commander, during the Texas ChalleNGe Academy Graduation at Iraan High School, in Iraan, Texas, June 22, 2013. The academy is a youth challenge program, sponsored by the Texas Military Forces that targets students between the ages of 16 and 18 who have dropped out of high school or are at risk of dropping out. (National Guard photo by Army 1st Lt. Martha Nigrelle)
Story by: 1st Lt. Martha Nigrelle
IRAAN, Texas – Hundreds of family members cheered as 89 students marched into the Iraan High School gymnasium on the morning of June 22, 2013. Coming from locations throughout the state of Texas, and each with their own troubled past, these students were all celebrating the same achievement – graduation from the Texas Challenge Academy (TCA).
The academy is located in the west Texas town of Sheffield, and is a Youth Challenge Program sponsored by the Texas Military Forces. The program targets high school students between the ages of 16 and 18 who are high school dropouts or are at risk of dropping out of high school.
TCA has the potential to significantly change people’s lives.
According to the TCA leadership, each year up to 118,000 students drop out of high school in the state of Texas. A goal of TCA is to help these students reclaim their lives through mentoring, education, physical fitness and volunteer service to the community. After a five and a half month course of instruction, students graduate, and then spend the next 12 months meeting with a mentor every week in order to maintain the positive changes in their life.
“I wasn’t even here for two weeks and I was trying to go home,” said Christopher Parkey, the class speaker. “I finally manned up and I started doing great things. I made myself proud. For the first time my dad said he was proud of me… But I am just one of 89 success stories here at TCA.”
These students have a right to be proud, said Lauren Schulman, the academy’s commandant. “You have made the journey from compliance to self-reliance” – indicating another goal of TCA, to help these students learn how to rely on themselves.
Col. Suzanne Adkinson, commander of the Joint Counter-drug Task Force and commencement speaker, spoke to the students about choices and making the decision to better their lives. Opting not to stand behind the lectern; instead, she chose to walk around the gym and speak directly to the students.
Adkinson reminded the students that sometimes life will present a situation that might not be fun, but is necessary to get to the next step, making a comparison to household chores.
“I hate to vacuum,” she said, “but I hate dirt even more.”
Her solution? Put on some headphones, dance around and vacuum anyway. In life you have to work hard and “go get it yourself,” she said.
Corps commander, Joshua Tilley, a Waco, Texas, resident, said he is ready to do just that. Tilley said he appreciates the life skills he got while at TCA, especially learning how to stay calm and work through a problem.
While he said he has fond memories of the drill and ceremony competition and helping the Texas Military Forces (TXMF) build an obstacle course, he said he is looking forward to a future life serving in the U.S. Air Force.
Jessica Knofla, of Seabrook, Texas, and the assistant corps commander, said she was thankful that her mother encouraged her to participate in the program. She said TCA gave her the tools to take initiative and to find her voice. Knofla said she now feels prepared to handle the real world and is confident that she can push herself to achieve her dream of earning a degree in psychology, law, or filmmaking.
It is evident that this program had a positive effect on each of the students as they accepted their diploma.
“We learned to make our lives better here,” said Priscilla Lopez, one of the graduating students.
“A doorway has been opened for you here today,” said Adkinson, “Doors will continue to open for you. You just have to choose to go through that door.”
As each student moved their graduation tassel to the left side of their mortar board, the TCA director Michael Weir congratulated the Class of 2013, and told them now was the time “to move from finish strong to carry on.”