Katlyn Staats wasn't supposed to be graduating high school.

Certainly not this year, as a 17-year-old junior.

Maybe not at all.

"Not a lot of people thought I'd graduate," said Katlyn, who Tuesday evening joined 380 classmates from Fruita Monument High School to receive her diploma. "No one thought I was going anywhere. So I got it done."

Katlyn's high school journey has been anything but conventional. Born in Grand Junction but raised until high school in the Nucla and Naturita area, Katlyn's family life took a turn when she was in her early teens. Drugs were involved.

"I pretty much dropped out of school freshman year," Katlyn said during an interview Monday. "I was pretty much raising my siblings."

Sporadically attending schools in Nucla, Grand Junction and Paradox, Katlyn got a job as a field hand, using her wages to feed her younger siblings, pay for their Christmas presents.

Child welfare workers eventually got involved. Katlyn was removed from her home, and spent a year in flux. She moved to Grand Junction, lived with a friend just a few years her senior, then with her aunt, then at a group home. She attended Central High School for a week before transferring to Palisade High School. She was behind academically, starting what should have been her sophomore year with only two credits.

"It was bad," Katlyn recalled.

Last summer, at age 16, she was already itching to have her own place.

"I've been independent for a long time," Katlyn said. "I just wanted to be, like, on my own."

After a short stint living with a friend's relative, Katlyn moved into a camper on an older woman's property west of Grand Junction. She got a new horse, Carolyn, and trained her herself. This year she took classes at Fruita Monument High School in the mornings, at Valley School in the afternoons. She worked a string of part-time jobs, paying her own rent all year long. She started her mornings at 5 a.m., at times only crawling into bed at midnight.

Katlyn completed 17 credit hours in a single year, which she credits to support from her teachers at Valley School, where students can set their own pace. It was supposed to be her junior year, but she finished enough work to graduate a year early.

In the meantime, Katlyn said, she's come a long way since she first left home. She has big dreams. She plans to attend Colorado Mesa University this fall to major in forestry, and hopes to one day work as a forest ranger and own her own ranch.

It'll be a challenge — especially considering that the teen hasn't been able to get her driver's license — but Katlyn said she intends to achieve her goals.

"Everyone, you know, tells me, 'Oh, a man should be the one to take care of you,' and I'm like, 'No, I want to take care of myself,'" Katlyn said. "I want to go to college, be able to support myself, and feel like I accomplished something in my life. … I want to prove to my siblings they can do it too."

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