BUTLERVILLE, Ind. (Army News Service, July 13, 2010) -- It's been a year of firsts for the National Guard's Patriot Academy.

The school opened its doors, Aug. 26, 2009, and graduated its first class March 18. Currently, a new class has started and a new precedent has been established. There are now female Soldiers attending the Patriot Academy.

The Patriot Academy is a pilot program from the National Guard Bureau that offers a high school diploma opportunity for at-risk youth wanting to serve their country in the Army National Guard.

Capt. Steven Conway, Company A Commander at Patriot Academy, said while there are currently only a few female students at the Academy, by the end of fall there will be 20 to 25 female students.

"As the programs grows, so will the population of female students," Conway said. "The intent of the Academy is to have approximately 75 female students on the ground at any time."

According to the Department of Defense, females account for approximately 13 percent of the active-duty Soldiers. Presently, there are 128 students at the Patriot Academy. Of those students, 22 percent come from minority groups and 12 percent are female.

As with all change, there will be complications and unforeseen occurrences in the process, but the addition of females to the student body has been a smooth transition, said 1st Sgt. John Craig, Company A First Sergeant at Patriot Academy.

"By becoming as diverse as possible, we strengthen the academy in the long run," said Craig. "As we increase the diversity of Soldiers here, we can attract more students that might feel more comfortable in a mixed environment," Craig said.

Pvt. Sarah Jax learned of the Patriot Academy through her recruiter as an alternative to the GED program.

"I'm excited about being here. It's good that the Guard is giving female Soldiers the opportunity at a second chance to get a high school diploma," Jax said. "There are only four of us right now, but there will be more."

The inclusion of female Soldiers into the Patriot Academy further increases the already wide diversity of the student population.

The current class at the Academy is a mix of Americans from a wide group of ethnic and racial backgrounds.

Pvt. Rigoberto Rodriguez grew up in El Paso, Texas. He doesn't necessarily see himself as a minority, just another American that wants to serve his country and make something better for his life.

"We're all Soldiers. Sure, being a minority with other minorities helps me to feel at home, but it doesn't make me feel uncomfortable either," said Rodriguez. "We have differences, but those differences do not matter. We are Soldiers."

Extraordinary circumstances led Pvt. Tien Nguyen of New Orleans, La., to the Patriot Academy. Nguyen received a family sponsorship to come to America six years ago from Vietnam. During Hurricane Katrina, he was one of the people rescued from the Superdome by National Guard Soldiers.

"Since then, I always wanted to join the National Guard. I wanted to serve my new country and community like the Soldiers that rescued me," said Nguyen. "Being in America is an improvement over Vietnam. I received my U.S. citizenship during basic training at Fort Knox. I haven't been treated any different here because of my ethnicity."

The demographic may be changing, but it's business as usual for the Academy; allowing Soldiers to gain their high school diploma.

Students of the Patriot Academy have to join the National Guard and they receive pay and benefits while attending the program. Students attend basic training before reporting to the Patriot Academy, then earn a high school diploma and continue to learn military skills and life skills throughout their stay. Upon completion they will attend advanced training and return to their home states for service in their Army National Guard Units.

(Sgt. David Bruce writes for the Camp Atterbury Public Affairs office)