Largest Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy class set to walk stage Friday

 BBYCA Graduation 2023

Largest Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy class set to walk stage Friday

By Sgt. 1st Class Erick Studenicka

Nevada Army Guard

CARSON CITY – Just days before his graduation from the Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy, cadet Thaiden Smiley had mixed emotions.

“It’s going to be bittersweet,” said Smiley, 16, of Elko High School, while home for a brief visit with his family on Memorial Day weekend. “I will miss the lifelong friends I’ve made and plan to stay in touch with. It’s been an amazing experience. The academy changed my mindset.”

Smiley is one of 51 students – the largest class to date in BBYCA history –set to participate in a graduation ceremony at 3 p.m. Friday at the Elko Convention Center.

BBYCA is a free, educational academy located in Carlin, Nev., on the grounds of the Nevada Army Guard’s Elko County Readiness Center. The academy operates under the auspice of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe program with the overarching goal of providing academic assistance to students 16-18 years of age who have dropped out of school or struggling academically. The residential portion of the academy lasts five months and includes physical training and community service in addition to academics. Across the nation, there are 40 National Guard youth academies in 31 states.

Following graduation, students transition to a one-year mentorship phase on schedule for their high school diploma.

Smiley’s maternal grandmother, Elaine Barkdull-Spencer, a Carson City entrepreneur who owns four businesses including the city’s Plato’s Closet, can hardly believe her grandson’s transformation after just five months at the academy.

“Thaiden is a totally different kid,” she said. “He has confidence. He has pride. The academy has made huge differences in his maturity, attitude and even physical appearance.

“Before, his main goal was to work to buy a car. Now, he realizes he can own a car later in life. Now, his main goal is to prepare for the future. He truly believes he needs to continue his education.”

Smiley languished with a 0.6 grade point average his sophomore year at Elko High. That’s before he viewed a presentation on Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy. He said the academy’s small class sizes and the idea of living on campus were attractive aspects of the program as he sought to prioritize academics over after-school employment.

“I saw my own potential in the program,” Smiley said. “I made up my mind instantly to attend.”

The first class of BBYCA graduated in December 2021 with 21 students. This spring’s class will receive nine high school diplomas, including four High School Equivalency (HISET) diplomas and five Battle Born Youth ChalleNGe Academy High School diplomas issued by the Elko County School District. 

Since entering the residential phase at BBYCA, Smiley has flourished. He has risen to the rank of Cadet Sergeant in the cadet ranks and made up seven high school credits to regain the possibility of graduating with the Elko High Class of 2024. His main priority has shifted from purchasing a car into gaining admission into the fisheries biology program at Feather River Junior College in Quincy, Calif.

While in the program, students are enrolled in the Elko County School District, which provides teachers for the academy. Nine uniformed Soldiers and Airmen on state active-duty orders are team leaders who are on campus at all hours and essentially fill the role of platoon sergeants and perform tasks such as leading physical training and marching students to meals in addition to mentoring and coaching the students. The course is completely voluntary and eligible students must have no history of drug use or crime.

The academy has the potential to accommodate 150 students each semester.

“We’re aiming for that many – in five years we’ll hopefully be at that number,” said program coordinator Kyle O’Connell. O’Connell, a warrant officer in the U.S. Army Reserves, was previously a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot in the 2/238th Aviation unit in the Nevada Army Guard.

O’Connell said the enrollment numbers for next semester are about equal to this semester’s class.

BBYCA was initially established by the Nevada Legislature in 2019. About 25 percent of its funding comes from the state and about 75 comes from federal coffers. In 2022, funding included $2.8 million from the federal government and about $945,000 from the state, O’Connell said.

Barkdull-Spencer said all efforts and expenditures to establish BBYCA in the state have been worthwhile.

“The return on investment in the students’ lives is priceless,” Barkdull-Spencer said. “I’m so impressed by this class of cadets.”

Barkdull-Spencer said all her Carson City business meetings on June 16 have been postponed.

“I am focused on that graduation. I have moved everything to the sidelines that day,” she said. “Nothing can stop me from attending that ceremony.”

For enrollment information, visit or call 775-315-1154.

The BBYCA graduation ceremony is set for 3 p.m. June 16 at the Elko Convention Center, 700 Moren Way, Elko. All are welcome to attend. Business casual dress for civilians is recommended.

 This is kind of confusing with different types of diplomas being issued. Are these different than the 51 diplomas for BBYCA? Do they get a diploma or just credits?