New Mexico Youth ChalleNGe Platoon Sgt. Phylicia Sampson, 16, leads her platoon in phyisical training during a 10 a.m. break between classes. (Tess Townsend Photo)
The time is 12 p.m. sharp on Sept. 25. Phylicia Sampson sits erect at a table in the cafeteria of Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. She is wearing a black polo, and her light brown hair is tied back in a tight pony tail. She is not wearing makeup.
In front of her is a divided lunch tray.
The 16-year-old alternates between picking at the biscuit in one section of her plate, and munching on slices of fruit in another section.
She doesn’t touch the lasagna in the center.
“Oh, I don’t like lasagna,” she says sheepishly.
Her admission serves as a rare break from an otherwise rigid demeanor. Sampson speaks in an even voice as she responds to any yes-no question asked by the reporter with “Yes, ma’am.”
Sampson, of Alamagordo, is a cadet in New Mexico Youth ChalleNGe, a free military-style program created by the National Guard for “at risk” youth between the ages of 16 and 18, especially those who have dropped out of high school or are contemplating doing so. The program provides GED classes and job training.
Sampson says she entered the program at the recommendation of a family friend.
Before entering the program, she says she was ditching school, drinking and doing drugs. She “got mixed up in the wrong crowd.”
At one point, she spent three months in a residential treatment facility at Mesilla Valley Hospital in Las Cruces.
“I was really not even doing anything I was supposed to be doing,” she says. “Nothing was really working out.”
Sampson says the ChalleNGe program has instilled her with discipline she might not otherwise have achieved.
“I’ve never really been proud of myself until I came here,” she says.
If there is one word to describe the daily schedule of cadets, it is “structure.” Sampson describes her Wednesday schedule:
The cadets wake at 5:30, and have 20 minutes to get ready. They do one hour of physical training or “PT,” after which they return to the barracks to do chores or “details” and get ready for class
After details, the cadets go to breakfast, followed by GED class. At 10 a.m., they break for 20 minutes of PT. At noon sharp, the cadets eat in the “chow hall.”
Lunch is 30 to 45 minutes long, depending on how long the cadres (adult supervisors of various military ranks) allow the cadets to eat, says Sampson.
For the female cadets, lunch is followed by a three-hour life skills class, in which cadets learn financial planning, how to apply for a job, and how to keep a job. Dinner follows life skills class.
The cadets go back to the barracks to do nighttime details, shower, use the internet and go to sleep.
The ChalleNGe program deprives cadets of more than free time. Cell phones and makeup are forbidden. The cadets are permitted only one three-minute phone call per week and one seven-hour visit with family per month.
Sampson is unperturbed by the Spartan lifestyle.
“I’ve been in the situation where I haven’t had these things before, so it was easy to get used to,” she says.
Sampson grew up in a military family. She lived in Germany from 2005 to 2009 because her step-father, a master sergeant in the Air Force, was transferred there. Her step-father is now stationed at Holloman Air Force Base.
As well as Sampson handles the austerity of the program now, there was a time in the beginning when the unfamiliarity of a new setting overwhelmed her.
During the first two weeks of the program, Sampson told Sgt. Olivia Tafoya she wanted to quit. Tafoya wouldn’t let her.
According to Sampson, Tafoya said, “This is what you need to be doing with your life.”
Tafoya recruited Sampson into the program. Sampson had blue hair at the time. Her family was with her and was making fun of her for considering joining a military-style program when in their eyes, she lacked discipline.
“I know that they were just teasing,” Tafoya says.
Tafoya now considers Sampson one of the most “squared away” cadets.
She says Sampson always follows orders, and can be trusted.
She recalls once when she needed to remove her shoe and Sampson was present. Tafoya has tattoos on her feet and paints her toenails. She says she did not want the cadets to know that she engages in effeminate activities from which they are barred. She says such restrictions and the pressure to be stoic are hardest on female cadets.
“They wanna be girls, they wanna be ladies,” she says. “But here, they’re females.”
She told Sampson not to tell the other cadets what she had seen.
“And I trusted her,” she says.
On Friday, Sept. 20, Sampson was rewarded for her performance by being the first member of the female platoon promoted to the position of platoon sergeant. For four weeks, Sampson will ensure that her cadets follow cadre orders.
Her job includes leading PT sessions — ironically Sampson’s least favorite part of the program. Sampson says she has accustomed herself to the regimen over time.
“The flooder kicks, though, I just can’t get over those,” she says.
At 10 a.m. on Sept. 26, Sampson led the cadets in exercises.
“The over-the-arm pull, the over-the-arm pull!” Sampson shouts to two rows of female cadets in berets, yellow T-shirts, and black pants.
“Never!” the cadets respond.
One of the greatest challenges for Sampson as a platoon sergeant is getting other cadets to listen to such a young leader.
Cadet Daniela Moreno, 16, of Albuquerque, is one of Sampson’s closest friends in the program. She refers to Sampson as her “battle buddy.”
Moreno says she tries to reason with cadets when when they ignore Sampson or talk back to her, and that Sampson is “starting to be more strict.”
Tafoya has observed Sampson become more confident during her two months in ChalleNGe.
“She may not be the fastest or the strongest, but she doesn’t give up,” Tafoya says. “And I feel that she is mentally strong and emotionally strong.”
Sampson is unsure of what she plans to do immediately after finishing the program in December. She is considering returning to the program as a junior cadre. Junior cadres are paid to repeat the program and serve as mentors for other cadets.
Her long-term goal is to become a registered nurse at a psychiatric hospital and serve in the Air Force Reserve. Sampson is training to be a certified nursing assistant through classes she takes at ENMU-R as part of the ChalleNGe program.
She says that when she was a patient at a residential treatment center, “the most amazing thing was people that would help me.”
Now, she wants to do the same.
“I wanna change someone’s life, you know?” she says.