College isn’t for everyone, but for those who choose it, it can determine a path to success.
So believes Onneka Challenger, who graduated earlier this month from the University of the Virgin Islands following an almost 20-year hiatus.
Challenger is not only a UVI graduate, but she is also the mother of a teen-age son, caregiver for her mother, and circulation director and human resources coordinator for The Daily News.
She juggled those roles all while studying for a bachelor of business administration degree, serving as an inspiration to co-workers, her son and others along the way.
Her determination showed that nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it, and having a support network also is key, she said.
Challenger joined The Daily News in 1997 as an intern while she was a student at Charlotte Amalie High School.
“I was 17, and I worked my way up to where I am now,” she said of how she got her start.
During that time, she worked with the Daily News’ Business Office, served as the newspaper’s operator and front desk assistant and eventually branched out to assist in the Human Resources department — a post she still holds.
Daily News Production Director Ken E. Ryan recalls hiring Challenger after her internship was up as his assistant for the Circulation department.
Ryan, a 37-year employee, who began his tenure at The Daily News as a temporary hire, said he noticed something about Challenger.
“She was a hard worker, and anything you asked her to do, she would go about it eagerly,” he said.
Ryan, who at the time held both the Production and Circulation director positions, said he needed an assistant in the latter post.
“So, when that position became available, she was able to start work right out of high school,” he said of the administrative assistant job Challenger took on in Circulation.
Daily News Editor-At-Large J. Lowe Davis also recalled Challenger as someone who would go far.
“From the day Onneka Challenger first came into The Daily News as an after-school intern, still in her Charlotte Amalie High School uniform, it was obvious she was destined to be a star,” she said. “Her intelligence, energy and competence shine through in everything she does. And she has done a lot — and in multiple areas.”
Davis, who has worked with Challenger for 24 years, said “it’s not a surprise to anyone who knows her that she has risen to the rank of director in not just one but two departments. And then, as if that’s not enough, at the same time she has earned a university degree. She is not just a star, she’s an inspiration.”
At the Daily News, Challenger says she “wears two hats” overseeing both Circulation and Human Resources.
Working full time was good, but she felt a college degree was something she needed to attain. It sounded like a good way to motivate young people — especially one in particular.
“I wanted my son to see me doing this. To show him that education is important, that it plays a role in our lives and can really take us places,” Challenger said of Elijah, now a sophomore at Charlotte Amalie High School. “College is not for everybody and is not the only way. But you must do something with your life. Just do something.”
The hours studying have been challenging, but she said she was lucky enough to work with a company that gave her time and space to grow on a job that she loves.
“I do enjoy working for the paper,” she said. “I like helping the community — online customers and those who still love to read the hard copy. I grew up within these walls, and we are a close-knit family.”
Challenger said she had a brief college experience back in 1999, when she tried nursing and quickly realized it wasn’t for her. She found herself much happier learning business with The Daily News, and in 2016 she enrolled at UVI to pursue a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in management.
“I thought it would never end,” Challenger said with a laugh while talking about her back-to-school experience. “I’m so thankful to The Daily News for the opportunity and the accommodation. They adjusted my schedule so I can go to school.”
The graduation ceremony was held on May 14, but not in-person, which Challenger admitted was a bit of a disappointment.
“Instead of walking across the stage, I was walking across the screen,” she said of the virtual ceremony. “I still felt elated, and when I saw my picture next to my (degree certificate), I understood I made it.”
Now, Challenger is thinking about going further and earning a more-advanced degree in business. She said that in observing social distancing etiquette, she celebrated — a lunch here, a dinner there — only with a few friends and family members.
“I celebrated the best I could,” Challenger said.
The Daily News staff also surprised her with a cake and decorating her office door with balloons and a congratulatory banner.
Daily News President Archie Nahigian was among those present for the surprise celebration.
“We are so proud of Onneka’s latest accomplishment and so fortunate to have her as a member of The Daily News management team,” he said. “Whether addressing subscriber issues or staff questions, Onneka is an unfailingly polite and professional problem solver. With digital subscribers growing as an increasing share of our readership, Onneka has also demonstrated the ability to embrace the changing landscape of the newspaper industry. No matter what the task, she can always be counted on to get the job done.”
Nahigian also praised Challenger’s can-do attitude, both professionally and personally.
“Raising Elijah in a single-parent household, caregiver for her mother, working full-time managing two Daily News departments, and now graduating from UVI is truly remarkable,” Nahigian said. “It is testament not only to Onneka’s talents, but to her dedication and work ethic as well.”