Taking on the challenge of leading a program for at-risk high school students might seem like a step down when your last job involved being responsible for nearly 8,000 Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers.

But retired Brig. Gen. Joane Mathews doesn’t see it that way at all as she takes the reins for the Wisconsin National Guard Challenge Academy.

“This program is so very important for our youth and their future that when the announcement came out [regarding the director opening], my family and I felt this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” Mathews said.

Mathews, until recently Wisconsin’s deputy adjutant general for Army, said she learned about Challenge Academy when she was “a young lieutenant colonel.”

“I was drawn to it,” Mathews said. “I attended nearly every graduation, and tried to attend their halfway meals or athletic events as much as my schedule allowed.”

Her affinity with Challenge Academy might be a natural outgrowth of her experience with the Wisconsin National Guard Youth Camp, where Mathews was involved for nearly 20 years as either director or co-director.

“I learned early on how much I enjoyed working with our youth,” she said.

Mathews was the keynote speaker at the Academy’s graduation ceremony last December, and shared with cadets that she had faced various challenges growing up and in her professional career.

“I was once your age, wondering what to do with my life,” Mathews said. “I am here to tell you, you can do anything you put your mind to.”

She spoke of being bullied in grade school for “not looking Native enough,” and then being bullied in high school for being Native American and associating with other Native Americans.

“Throughout my time growing up, and sometimes even in the military, I was met by doubters who didn’t believe I could do something because I was female, or Native, or for any number of other reasons,” Mathews told the cadets. “But those doubters only motivated me to work harder and dream bigger.”

Overcoming those challenges helped her gain confidence, Mathews said. And now, the Challenge Academy awaits.

“I can’t wait to get to know more about the employees who work there,” Mathews said, “to learn from them, and together make positive changes to our program.

“I can’t wait to interact with the youth, hear their stories, and help them in any way I can,” she continued. “Changing jobs is always a bit stressful, but this I am very much looking forward to.”

Challenge Academy uses a structured, military-style environment, and state-certified teachers and counselors, to reshape the lives of at-risk youth ages 16 to 18 by developing academic abilities, character, self-confidence and personal discipline. The program consists of two phases — a 22-week residential phase at the Academy’s Fort McCoy, Wisconsin campus, and a 12-month post-residential phase where cadets implement their action plan with guidance from an appointed mentor.

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