The story of Wyoming’s Cowboy Challenge Academy: Candidates, to cadets, to confident young men and women

Capt. Megan Hoffmann

A level of uncertainty is expected upon entering the program. The 52 candidates of Class 32 who reported to the program Jan. 8 were no exception.

When they reported on a cool, cloudy day in January to the Camp Guernsey Joint Training Center, they were quiet. Smiles and pleasantries were not exchanged. Many of them kept their eyes toward the ground, lacking confidence and self-esteem. They knew the next 22 weeks until graduation would not be easy.

On June 10, 41 of those cadets walked across the stage for their graduation at Wheatland High School, substantially changed. They looked up confidently, made eye contact, smiled every once in a while and carried themselves with poise.

“I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I came into the program. Some of our sergeants told us we would hate the program from the day we entered, until graduation. It was tough, but I didn’t mind it. It’s helped me a lot,” said Tyger Rodriguez, 17, of Torrington, Wyoming.

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Rodriguez, one-of-four cadets whose progress was followed throughout the duration of the 22-week program, said Jan. 8 that the reason he enrolled in the program was that he saw the need for change in his life – a better attitude and mindset. He recalled that the week prior to the program starting, he had been in county jail and had the desire to enroll in the program and make a better life for himself.

Rodriguez didn’t know if he would make it through the program the first several weeks. Neither did Samantha Clinger, 17, of Thermopolis, another cadet whose progress in the program was followed.

“I wanted to leave only a couple weeks into the program and my mom wouldn’t let me come home. It ended up the being the best thing she could have done for me,” said Clinger, who graduated with her High School Equivalency Certificate.

The HSEC, otherwise known as a GED, is only one of the academic options WCCA graduates have. Along with the HSEC, cadets are offered Apex. Apex, an accredited credit recovery system, is a way to help the cadets catch up and return to high school once they have graduated the program.

Rodriguez recovered his credits via Apex and the program is now working with his high school to get his diploma.

In addition to academics, the program also had cadets exercising on a regular basis. The physical training regimen throughout the 22-week duration is used to help cadets take control of behavior issues and to foster team building.

“I thought the program would be more like basic training. I thought we would just get yelled at and work out the entire time, but it wasn’t like that at all. The cadre here actually care about us,” said Robert Renquist III, 16, of Casper, Wyoming.

Career-wise, the program offers cadets the chance to travel to Casper College many Saturdays where they were taught a variety of skills and trades ranging from culinary, to heavy machinery, to carpentry.

“The best part about the program is the opportunities we’ve had. We get college credits for a lot of stuff we’ve done. I was in a culinary class so I’ve been able to learn how to make a bunch of homemade food,” said Angel Burson, 16, of Riverton, Wyoming.

The cadets also routinely performed community service and partook in several programs aimed at increasing their knowledge of future opportunities, such as familiarization with the military, something Clinger said she would like to pursue.

Rodriguez, Clinger, Burson and Renquist entered the program in January with vastly different backgrounds and almost nothing in common. Now, not only are they all WCCA graduates, they’re all huge proponents of the program.

“The program gets you ready for life. It gave us cool opportunities like college credits, mock interviews, and talking to military recruiters. They got us lined up with jobs and helped us get a good start for when we leave here. It has showed me what’s important in life and changed how I look at things,” said Rodriguez.

“The best part of the program was the confidence I’ve gained and developed. I can keep eye contact now. I feel better – I’ve accomplished something that will mean a lot and help me in the future. I’ve never really accomplished anything in life, so the fact that I stuck with this and graduated is pretty amazing,” said Clinger.

All of the cadets said they hoped other Wyoming at-risk youth would give Wyoming Cowboy Challenge Academy a chance.

“I’d tell potential cadets that when you first get there, it’s really, really tough. But if you can push through it and do the best you can, it gets easier. If you just do what you’re supposed to do, and get it done, it can change your life,” said Burson.

Opportunities aside, the cadets have also formed close bonds with one another.

“The best part of the program is the friends I’ve made. I’ve gotten really close to some of the guys here. The program has taught me a lot about the importance of self-respect. If I don’t respect myself, I can’t respect others. I know that now,” said Renquist.

College credits, jobs, self-esteem, academic opportunity and friends are just scratching the surface of all the great things the cadets relayed about the program.

The four graduating cadets are also excited about their future prospects.

Renquist has already applied for several jobs in Casper so he can pay his own way through college. He is enrolled at Casper College to become a paramedic.

Clinger is getting a summer job when returning home, and then working toward joining the military to work with canines.

Burson is enrolled in college courses at Central Wyoming College, in Riverton, going into welding and business.

Rodriguez intends to enroll in Eastern Wyoming College or Laramie County Community College and pursue a degree in business management.

“I’m glad I did it because I was on the wrong path and this straightened me up and made me focus on what’s important in life. I’ll go home with the right mindset and be on track to be a better version of myself,” said Rodriguez.

“This is literally the start of everything. I know what I’m going home to, and going through this program, I can actually say I’m prepared to face it. After being through this program, I feel like I can do anything – conquer my fears,” said Clinger. “It’s great practice for life because you can’t just quit in life every time something difficult comes up. You have to face it.”

“You feel healthier – being away from distractions and bad influences, eating right, getting exercise. It makes you want to take the right path in life,” said Burson. “If I didn’t come here, I don’t know where I’d be. It definitely made a change in my life.”

“I’d tell potential cadets that if they think they need this program, they should go. Don’t wait. It helped me out a lot. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” said Renquist.

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