Moffat County graduation marks big changes as Bulldogs move forward

Moffat County graduates throw their caps during the MCHS Class of 2023 ceremony.
Andy Bockelman/Craig Press

As one of many graduating seniors in Moffat County’s Class of 2023 to customize their headgear, Malia Graham was flanked by photos of departed loved ones amid colorful butterflies on her cap.

Carrying her family members with her, she stepped across the stage ready to face the future while still remembering the past. MCHS celebrated the accomplishments of 100 graduates with 100 unique stories during Saturday’s commencement ceremony.

The crowd of family and friends sat in the packed gym as the MCHS band performed “Pomp and Circumstance” to start things off, followed by an electric guitar rendition of the national anthem by graduate Tristan Malvitz.

Malvitz, who also wields the trombone and euphonium, has regularly strummed “The Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting events, and doing it for the final time was bittersweet, though he said he wouldn’t turn down a chance to perform again down the road for his alma mater.

“If the school needs me to come back for any reason, I’d love to do it,” Malvitz said. “One thing I’ve learned here is to always strive to be the best that you could possibly be and always be willing to work with others and help others along the way.”

With an official welcome from Student Council President Diana Arellano, principal Sarah Hepworth highlighted scholarship students who have amassed more than $100,000 in local funding for their future plans.

Hepworth also noted honor students — Valedictorian Cayden King and Salutatorian Alexis Jones — as well as a trio of military-bound grads — Kaden Hixson (Marines), Easton Briggs (Navy) and Erik Corral Gutierrez (Army).

“The benefits and the experience will be good,” Corral Gutierrez said. “I’m going to try it for a few years.”

Arellano and Jones presented the class gift, which is funding for new furniture in the second floor commons, which led into the presentation of MCHS staff’s choices for Outstanding Girls and Boy awards. Becca Sage introduced Lizzy LeWarne as the Outstanding Girl, noting LeWarne’s athletic prowess in volleyball, basketball and track, as well as her classroom proficiency and well-known love for Crocs footwear.

“Her brilliance shines in the classroom and far beyond,” Sage said. “Her smile and her heart radiates in every classroom and court she steps into, and she will continue to do great things in life as she pursues her nursing career.”

Shelby Massey spoke of Outstanding Boy Carter Green as a boon to the Future Farmers of America chapter, and the school as a whole.

“He has been a beacon of inspiration for his peers, a role model for younger students, and an asset to our school’s mission to educate and inspire students to thrive in an environment of change,” Massey said. “I have truly seen him grow from a shy quiet boy to a proud, passionate young man.”

Jones was back onstage for the commencement address, noting the Class of 2023’s resilience, exemplified by a freshman year that saw lots of uncertainty with the COVID pandemic. She joked that in the distant future, she and her classmates will have a new twist on their relatives’ tales of walking miles upon miles to school.

“Instead of telling our grandchildren those exaggerated stories, ours will be along the lines of, ‘The whole world ran out of toilet paper, you couldn’t leave your house for weeks and we didn’t see each other’s faces without masks for almost a year,'” she said.

With a vocal performance by MCHS choir students to lift spirits — the final one under instructor Grace Alberico — students began receiving their diplomas.

Celeste Acuña Valenzuela was the first to cross the stage, despite spending most of her childhood on the lower half of the class list.

“Acuña was accidentally registered as my middle name for the first 14 years of my life until my mom noticed it on the birth certificate,” she laughed.

Once all the Bulldogs gained their diplomas and threw their caps, LeWarne provided the farewell address, borrowing a quote from one of her favorite TV characters.

“As the great Ted Lasso once said: ‘It’s funny to think about the things in your life that can make you cry just knowing they existed, can then become the same things that make you cry knowing that they’re now gone,'” she said.

After exiting the MCHS gym to Rascal Flatts’ “Life Is a Highway” playing over the speakers, the graduates were already looking ahead to what’s in store. For Acuña Valenzuela, it’s studying medicine at Arizona State University. She was born in Mesa, Arizona, and is eager to experience some new places.

“Moving, hopefully traveling, I’m looking forward to that a lot,” Acuña Valenzuela said. “I’ll miss my friends and my teachers, Mr. Padon and Miss Chaney and Miss Feezell.”

Reagen Bower said she will take a gap year before jumping back into academics. She plans to work with family business Bower Brothers and her aunt’s forthcoming thrift shop Ancestors Treasures, plus teaching dance at Studio V.

Bower said the goal is to get a good grasp on adulthood.

“I really want to get my foot out the door,” Bower said. “I’m looking forward to making my own schedule and being more in control of things. I just get to go out and do my thing, make my own choices and make my life matter.”

As a junior this school year, Antonia Vasquez attended the school district’s alternative program and was able to polish off all her high school credits early with plans to study surgical technology in Utah.

“It was hard, but it was so worth it,” she said.

Marlee Fedinec achieved an associate’s degree from Colorado Northwestern Community College earlier this month and will complete CNCC’s cosmetology program this summer. She had her MCHS diploma presented to her by her mother, school board member Krystal Fedinec.

“I haven’t even been here most of the year,” Marlee said. “I had all my credits by the end of my junior year. I’ll just miss all the people here.”

Ever since MCHS began allowing graduates to decorate their mortarboards, each class has gotten increasingly creative, be it a nod to a favorite film, newspaper clippings from throughout the year, a bundle of flowers or recognizing family.

Graham’s cap included snapshots of several relatives who have passed away during her childhood, including both her mother and father and each of her grandmothers.

Though she’s experienced significant losses, Graham memorialized them with the text: “Thank you to the Angels Smiling Above.”

“The way that I perceive it, I feel a lot different than other people who go through it,” Graham said. “I don’t know how to explain it exactly. It’s not like they’re on my mind a lot. I just feel like because all of them are with me, they give me peace and I know that I’m making them proud.”

Graham plans to attend Grand Canyon University in Phoenix to study humanities and social sciences.

“I want to be either a life coach or a therapist counselor, motivational speaker,” Graham said. “Something to help people and make a difference. Everything happens for a reason, and I try to stay really positive about everything.”

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