Meeting the ChalleNGe: National Guard Program Turns Out Graduates and Soldiers

Even when a teenaged Brandon Hawkins managed to go to school, which wasn’t often, he didn’t always make it to class. Doubtful he could earn his diploma in time, a school administrator suggested the Maryland teen try a different kind of school in order to graduate – the Freestate ChalleNGe Academy. 

But in order to attend this military school, the young man would have to cut off his dreadlocks. For Hawkins, the haircut was a dealbreaker – that was until he realized after dropping out of high school and working at a local ice cream chain that not many jobs would be open to him without a diploma or GED.

So Hawkins signed up for the 22-week ChalleNGe program. The “NG” in “ChalleNGe”stands for the National Guard. The program, which began in 1993, is sponsored by the National Guard Youth Foundation. Since it started, more than 140,000 student cadets have graduated from the program, which is designed for at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds. The in-residence course teaches life skills like leadership, self-discipline, how to manage personal finances, as well as academics to help students get their high school diplomas or equivalent.

For an in-depth look at the ChalleNGe program, check out the video below. It’s the first of a five-part series filmed at Freestate. 

Just a few years ago, neither Hawkins nor his Freestate classmate, Luis Membreno, could have imagined themselves attending a military school. But both of the men, now 20 years old, not only graduated from Freestate, but they’ve also joined the Maryland Army National Guard as a result of their positive experiences in ChalleNGe.

PVT Membreno, an 11B Infantryman, chose Guard service because of “all the benefits that come with it. I’m learning how to be a more responsible adult, also to manage my life and my time.”

PFC Hawkins is a 15P Aviation Operations Specialist with the Guard where “I supervise helicopter flights, monitor the radio, and handle flight hours. I handle flight plans and go through the crash alert system.”

Because Guard service is typically a part-time commitment, PFC Hawkins is also working for a security firm and considering going to school for two different fields: business administration, because he would like to eventually franchise his father’s Caribbean restaurant, and psychology, because he enjoys talking with people. 

Both he and PVT Membreno have gone back to Freestate ChalleNGe Academy to lend an encouraging word to potential cadets.

“I tell them that it’s all worth it, keep pushing forward,” says PVT Membreno, who hopes to attend the Prince George’s County Police Academy in Maryland. 

PFC Hawkins zones in on the kids who remind him of himself at that age. He also reassures parents that school isn’t really over once the 22 weeks are up. He’s still in contact with his case manager, who checks up with him, more than two years after graduation.

PFC Hawkins and his fiancee, Estephany Martinez.

PFC Hawkins and his fiancee, Estephany Martinez.

“I never really thought I would have that type of support,” he says.

For PFC Hawkins, the best benefit of the ChalleNGe program has been the change in his mindset. 

“My mindset now is to work and build for the future, just expand my knowledge.”

As for his goals in the Guard, “I want to deploy, I want to travel, I really want to jump from job to job, seeing what I can do as far as what schools I can go to, what opportunities they can offer, and what I can actually offer them.”

So if you’re interested in finding out what Guard life has to offer, and what you can give back to your community and your country, contact a recruiter today. Also, check out our job board to explore a Guard career that matches your interests. There are more than 150 options available.


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