“You can be anything you put your mind to. Your limitations are always in your mind,” Mike Sleeper, the vice chairman of the Columbia County Board of Education, said as he addressed 214 graduates Saturday at James Brown Arena.
Cadets in the Youth Challenge Academy are high school dropouts between ages 16 and 18. The 17-month program “helps young people earn their GED, enroll in college, enter the workforce or join the military,” according to a news release.
Graduating cadets were awarded more than $20,000 in college scholarships. Among the awards was a new one given in memory of Tyler Gillis, who graduated from the program in 2011 and was killed in a car accident in November.
“He came to get an education, but he got so much more,” said his father, Danny Gillis, in presenting the award to Joshua Trutt.
Kianna Dhanraj was named the Distinguished Challenge Graduate and received a $2,500 scholarship from Georgia Power.
Sleeper told graduates that he placed many limitations on himself when he was younger. He was raised by a single mother and received public assistance. At Evans High School, he spent so much time in detention he thought there should have been a plaque in the room with his name on it.
After graduating high school, he joined the Army and served with the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. Many times, he wondered whether he was doing the right thing.
“I put limits in my mind,” he said. “I did it and got through it.”
At one point, he injured his knee during an airplane jump and spent a few months out of commission. It was a little too long for his sergeant, who came to Sleeper one day and told him he was going to take a physical fitness test. If he didn’t pass, Sleeper would be out of the program.
“I just made it through in time,” he said. Afterward, he went to the sergeant, who said, “I knew all along you could do it. You needed to know you could do it.”
Sleeper graduated from Augusta State University, then took graduate classes at the University of Georgia in artificial intelligence. He works as a computer security engineer at the Savannah River Site.