Senior in a class all by himself

Lone Gateway grad: ‘Valedictorian, salutatorian, class clown, everything'

Gateway School Principal Pat Chapin watches as lone graduate Dustin Copeland turns his tassel.



Oh, what any high school graduate wouldn’t give to be Dustin Dakota Copeland.

The 19-year-old Gateway High School graduate is the class of 2010 — the only senior this year to graduate from the tiny rural school tucked in a valley of towering mesas.

As the graduate, Dusty, as he’s called, got to choose the class colors (black and green), the class song (“Citizen Soldiers”) and the motto (Dream big, live life to the fullest).

He’s the smartest in his class and proudly bore the medal for valedictorian Thursday night during a graduation ceremony with about 40 friends, family and teachers in the town’s community center.

“Valedictorian, salutatorian, class clown, everything,” Copeland joked after the ceremony, about his various roles.

In yet another stroke of good fortune, Copeland won the District 51 attendance challenge sponsored by Subaru, snagging a new car. Seniors who attended class more than 98 percent of the time were entered into a drawing to win the car. As luck would have it, the senior living the farthest from shopping malls and movie theaters scored the grand prize.

“Everyone is like, ‘Dude you should give me a ride,’ ” Copeland said, of his newfound fame. “I’m not a carnival ride. It’s different; I’m not used to it.”

Small-town life wasn’t always easy for Copeland who transferred to Gateway School at the end of October. He had been living in Texas, near Dallas, with his mother when his motivation to finish high school began to slide and he asked his father if he could live with him in Gateway. Dad drove to Texas and picked up his son.

With both ears pierced and his tongue pierced, the former city kid initially seemed a little unusual to his classmates — the closest in age being three juniors.

Still, Copeland said, he was embraced by the tight-knit community and awed by the area’s magnificent redrock monoliths, two aspects that revived a relish for life. Though he was dealing with depression, he began to transform himself from being the student who always said “I can’t” to the student who said “I can,” he said during his graduation speech.

“When he first came he was not confident about anything,” junior Danae Herrmann said. “He’s changed. He’s confident in himself. He won a car. He has a job. He’s part of the community.”

Copeland plans to enlist in the U.S. Army in the hopes of becoming a mechanic. He hasn’t yet signed up because he plans to stay in Gateway this summer, working for Gateway Canyons Resort as a bellhop and a dishwasher. Coplend also wants to become closer to his father, this year being his first chance to reconnect with him.

While in Gateway, he’s gone   ice climbing and hiking. He’s been practicing on his electric guitar and played “The Star-Spangled Banner” for his adoring crowd of friends and family at the ceremony’s start.

“It was actually pretty cool me being the only one graduating and not competing with anyone else,” Copeland said. “I figured I’d get a little bit more help. It’s a really good school.”

Copeland said though the Army will take him away from Gateway, it might not be forever.

“I have a feeling I’ll come back here,” he said.


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