ChallengeU helps Ohio at-risk students graduate high school

Dozens of young people proudly donning a cap and gown converged on downtown Cincinnati last weekend to celebrate something they once never thought possible: their graduation from high school.

The group of 40 students is part of the inaugural graduating class of ChallengeU – Ohio, an online dropout prevention and recovery community school program. The nonprofit works with high school students who’ve either dropped out previously or were on the verge of dropping out.

“I never thought I would be here; given the opportunity to walk this stage,” valedictorian Aryana Hemming, 17, said Saturday during a ceremony at The Westin Cincinnati hotel overlooking Fountain Square.

Aryana Hemming (center) delivers her commencement speech.

In their road to graduation, Hemming and her fellow students had to complete their formal education online, completing the typical coursework and testing of any high school or general equivalency student.

But the ChallengeU model also involves an in-person component – a mixture of tutoring, coaching mentorship from local community organizations – to help each student on their path to graduation.

Students, ages 14 to 21, receive a free laptop, along with a free hotspot, to make it easier for them to complete their coursework and not fall behind in their studies.

The program has been in place in parts of Canada and the United States but only launched in Ohio last year. Cincinnati is the home base for the statewide program, ChallengeU Community School.

“Every student deserves an equal opportunity to build a promising future,” said Nicolas Arsenault, CEO of ChallengeU. “We are not asking the underserved students to come back to school; we created a school that comes to meet them where they are.”

‘More than just passing classes’

During her speech, Hemming said earning her diploma took “more than just passing classes” and “more than just good grades.” The Beavercreek resident went on to list challenges she and her fellow graduates faced in their life – from the more common items such as illness to the less common like home life challenges.

Visibly choked up at times, Hemming received comments of support and praise from the audience full of family members, friends and supporters of the ChallengeU mission.

“You got this,” Cincinnati Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney told Hemming from her seat in the crowd. Lemon Kearney also spoke during the commencement, congratulating each graduate on their accomplishments. The longtime City Council member used part of her remarks to ask every graduate to say out loud to themselves and to the crowd, “I am important” and urged them to say that to themselves every day from this day forward.

Nicolas Arsenault; ChallengeU CEO, Summer Crenshaw, ChallengeU board president; and a ChallengeU 2024 Ohio graduate.

The celebration was also a testament to the families, friends and support systems that have helped the ChallengeU students make it to graduation, Arsenault said. Many of them were in attendance for the morning program.

Nearly half of the graduates had to travel from outside Cincinnati for the event. Most reside in the Greater Cincinnati or Greater Dayton regions, but others came from as far as Columbus and Akron to be part of the formal festivities.

“You can do this. You can do whatever you put your mind to,” advice Hemming gave to other people doubting their ability to make it to the stage.

“Never give up,” she said. “No matter how hard it gets, remember all the hard things you’ve done and got through.”

2024 ChallengeU graduating class

 *Most last names intentionally omitted for privacy reasons

  • Chase, 20, Jamestown
  • Aidan, 17, Bellbrook
  • Ethan, 19, Fairborn
  • Bryce, 18, Miamisburg
  • Blake, 19, Dayton
  • Avah, 18, Cincinnati
  • Samantha, 18, Xenia
  • Christian, 18, Hillsboro
  • Paige, 18, Springfield
  • Sarah, 17, Canton
  • Emma, 18, Cedarville
  • Sierra, 17, Hillsboro
  • Isaiah, 21, Cincinnati
  • Peninah, 21, Kettering
  • Jayden, 18 , Waynesville
  • Calli, 20, Akron
  • Kenzie, 18, Farmersville
  • Caleb, 19, Lebanon
  • Kaitlyn, 18, Beavercreek
  • Samantha, 18, Mason
  • Makayla, 18, Cincinnati
  • Daniel, 18, Columbus
  • Jordan, 18, Bluffton
  • Justin, 18, Akron
  • Chloe, 18, Belmont
  • Bre’Asia, 19, Cincinnati
  • Rodney, 18, Felicity
  • Aryana, 17, Beavercreek
  • Ruby, 18, Cincinnati
  • Landon, 18, Fairfield
  • Kaden, 20, Centerville
  • Danyou’ll, 20, Cincinnati
  • Alexis, 18, Hillsboro
  • Alexius, 20, Cincinnati
  • Noah, 19, Fairborn
  • Justin, 17, Columbus
  • Samantha, 17, Middletown
  • Micah, 18, Ashland
  • Jaiden, 18, Cincinnati
  • Skylar, 16, Dayton


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