VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia– For many cadets in the Virginia National Guard Commonwealth ChalleNGe Youth Academy, the 20-week residential portion of the program is an opportunity to pursue credit recovery and return to high school. For some, they spend their time preparing to take the GED exam at the end of the course.
But for some cadets, two new programs offer them the opportunity to quickly receive their GED certificate and then spend eight to 10 weeks taking college classes or training for a future career in the building industry.
In partnership with Tidewater Community College, ChalleNGe is now offering two college courses twice a week to the cadets of Class 51. And for the third class in a row, cadets have the opportunity to train and receive certification in commercial construction skills through a partnership with Associated Builders and Contractors.
“For many of these cadets, when they came to ChalleNGe education wasn’t their issue,” said Dr. Delphoney Kargbo, the Commonwealth ChalleNGe mentor coordinator. “Their issue was discipline. Having TCC on campus and taking them to ABC allow them to get the education they need as well as the discipline they need through Challenge.”
“It’s great to be solidifying these partnerships,” said Mark Chicoine, director of Commonwealth ChalleNGe. “We provide the care and feeding and get them to TCC and ABC and then they handle the education and training.”
Commonwealth ChalleNGe is the Virginia component of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, a 17-and-a-half-month program designed to promote academics, attention to detail, time management, and leadership, while promoting self-esteem, confidence and pride.
All of the cadets in these programs are “GED cadets” who were “fast tracked” at ChalleNGe. In some cases, “fast track” cadets receive their GED certificate and then join the military and ship off to basic training before the class officially graduates.
“If you can pass the ASVAB, you can pass the GED,” Kargbo explained. “So we fast track them through their GED testing and then they either join the military, go in to the ABC program or go in to the TCC program.”
The two business classes offered through TCC are Introduction to Business and Small Business Management and the instructors say once the cadets get over their fear of college, their work is no different than what they see on the TCC campus.
“Their preconceived notions of college were the only thing hindering them,” said Tyrone Woodberry, a TCC instructor who teaches the Introduction to Business Class. “We deal with a lot of students at campus who are unprepared but our job is to provide resources to help them. So when we connect with another resource like ChalleNGe it just opens up more for students.”
“Our professors are very nice and very understanding,” said Demecys Guitierrez of Winchester. “The hardest part is getting all of our work done on time.”
According to Kargbo, the TCC cadets’ biggest complaint is not having enough time to study.
“They’re really smart kids,” she explained. “So keeping them in a GED class would not have been advantageous. These cadets are going to college, going to ChalleNGe and maintaining a B average.”
“The cadets are doing well now but when they started they studied like they were in high school,” explained Chicoine. “So we developed a ‘College 101’ study guide that really seemed to help them with their anxiety.”
Many of the students admit they were scared and unprepared to begin taking college classes.
“I didn’t think I was going to college because of how my grades were in high school,” said Arya Amirshahi. “I didn’t expect to be fast tracked or put in the TCC program because I didn’t think I was at that level based on my test scoring.”
The Reston resident admitted he felt overworked at first but soon, like the rest of his classmates, he found his way.
“It was overwhelming at first and it seemed like a lot because we hadn’t experienced the college work ethic and we didn’t know if we could handle it,” he said.
“I was nervous at first and it was harder than we thought,” admitted Trent Williams of Hampton. “We had to learn how to study at a college level.”
Among the many advantages of the program is the fact that, as a state institution, cadets can transfer their TCC credits to any other Virginia state school, something that helps immensely with their future plans.
For example, after ChalleNGe Williams plans to get a few more college credits and then join the U.S. Navy.
“It was a big surprise to get this experience,” Williams said. “But it doesn’t get better than this.”
Amirshahi admitted he didn’t have a plan when he arrived at ChalleNGe but now he does. That plan calls for him to continue his college education at Northern Virginia Community College and then George Mason University where he hopes to follow in the family footsteps and study pre-med and become a doctor.
“It opened a lot of doors that I didn’t have before and it made me realize what my potential was,” Amirshahi said. “I didn’t think I had much before I came here.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Guitierrez.
“I wasn’t looking at college but this definitely opened up doors for me,” she said. “I didn’t finish high school so I didn’t know if college was the thing for me. Now I feel like I can actually do it.”
After ChalleNGe she plans to join the Air National Guard and continue with college where she hopes to study criminal justice.
“We are excited they are taking classes and trying to further their education,” Woodberry said. “The students are doing really well and they’re more excited about it than many of the students who come to campus.”
One of the staff’s main concerns was that by receiving their GED so early, these cadets wouldn’t come back to the program after their first pass. Those fears proved to be unfounded.
“In fact they were the first ones back,” Kargbo said. “They were ready to come back and get back to work. They’re really excited to be college students.”
While the TCC cadets are staying on campus and taking classes all day Tuesday and Thursday, the ABC cadets have an even tougher schedule.
Five days a week the four cadets are in a van by 7:30 am with a bag lunch packed for their day of training in Norfolk. Afterwards, they return to campus, eat dinner and spend the evening studying before they do it all over again the next day.
“They have to take a test every two to three days just to stay in the program,” Kargbo said. “They have just as strong a commitment to education as those in the TCC program. It’s just two different tracks- one is college and one is a trade.”
There are about 15 other people in the class and despite being the youngest people there, according to Kargbo, they’re thriving in that environment.
“The hardest part is the math,” said Malik Lockett, a sentiment echoed by the other three participants in the program.
Whether they are interested in being an electrician or a carpenter, the ABC program offers them training and certification they will be able to use later. As a certified program for commercial construction, the cadets receive Occupational Safety and Health Administration certification and once the course is over, and before ChalleNGe graduation, they will each get the chance to go for job interviews in preparation for life after ChalleNGe.
“Not a lot of people our age are getting this training,” said James O’Neal of Virginia Beach. “Most kids our age are working fast food. We’re getting to learn something that will help us have a career.”
Meanwhile a lot of the female cadets aren’t interested in construction, Kargbo explained, so the ChalleNGe staff has looked at other possibilities for training and certification. They recently polled the female cadets to see what their interests are. As a result they are planning to add a partnership with Tidewater Medical Training for Class 52 that will allow cadets interested in the medical field to receive training as a Certified Nursing Assistant before they graduate.
These programs are not only offering something tangible for cadets in the future but they’re changing the way they think about themselves.
“I think everyone should have the opportunity to do programs like this,” Guitierrez said. “It makes you look at school in a whole new way. Why come to ChalleNGe and go for the bare minimum when you can achieve so much more than what you came for?”