CLASS OF 2019: Chugiak-Eagle River valedictorians exemplify excellence

Wednesday, May 22, 2019 - 11:54
  • Andrea Rios (Courtesy photo)
  • Chugiak High valedictorian Billy Smith speaks to his fellow graduates as Anchorage School Board president Starr Marsett and Dr. Deena Bishop look on during Chugiak High School graduation ceremonies on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Noah Denny (Courtesy photo)
  • Eagle River High valedictorian Collin Dyches gives a speech during commencement ceremonies for Eagle River High School on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

A pilot. A businessman. A scientist. A soldier.

The 2019 class of more than 500 Chugiak-Eagle River area high school graduates includes many young people on the brink of extraordinary adulthoods, and this year’s crop of valedictorians exemplifies that promise.

Among those who led their classes academically this year were Eagle River Christian’s Noah Denny, an aspiring Bush pilot; Chugiak’s Billy Smith, a future captain of industry; Birchwood Christian’s Andrea Rios, who dreams of serving others and her God through medicine; and Eagle River High’s Collin Dyches, who wants to serve his country.

Between them, the four unique and gifted youngsters embody the hope and ambition seen in the eyes of the hundreds of young adults who walked across stages earlier this month. Here’s each of their stories:

Noah Denny

School: Eagle River Christian

Parents: Shaun and Michelle Denny

Some graduates hope to soar to new heights metaphorically. Noah Denny already does it for real.

Denny got his pilot’s license in October at age 17 and plans to immediately start down a path toward becoming a professional pilot by entering the UAA professional piloting program this month.

“Right now my idea is stay up here and be a Bush pilot and fly cargo,” said Denny, who comes from a military family and got introduced to flying by his uncle, David, who refuels planes in the Air Force.

Denny juggled a massive workload to get his pilot’s license while still in high school. In addition to taking classes at ERCH, he also played hockey for Chugiak High (where he helped the team win a state championship in 2017) and took classes through the state’s Denali PEAK correspondence school.

“It was crazy for a while,” he said.

Denny said the small classes at the school inside King’s Way Ministry on Eagle River Loop were key to helping him reach his goals.

“It was just the support from the staff that you may not get from a public school,” he said.

Although Denny won’t get much of a summer vacation this year (his classes started this week), he said he wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

“There’s nothing better than seeing Alaska from 3,000 feet or higher.”

Andrea Rios

School: Birchwood Christian

Parents: Leonardo and Rebecca Rios

Faith is the most important thing to Andrea Rios, and it’s something she learned by example.

“My parents told me even if I hadn’t been valedictorian, what mattered was my effort,” she said. “That made me really happy because they were there for me all through my years and as long as I gave my best they were happy.”

Rios wants to follow her father — an oral surgeon — into medicine and become a physical therapist. She plans to study exercise science at Cal Baptist University and said she’s looking forward to the college lifestyle.

Rios said she’s driven to learn and credited her 10th grade biology teacher at BCS, Mr. Edwards, for inspiring her to research topics on her own time after school.

“I just learned so much from that,” she said.

She wants to work with children and aspires to be an example to others in order to be an example of her strong Christian faith.

“I believe in Jesus and I believe that he’s my savior and I really want people to know that and anything I do in my life I want it to be a testament to him,” she said. “I want people to feel his love through me.”

Billy Smith

School: Chugiak High

Parents: Bill and Jo Smith

Billy Smith never sleeps, so he’s heading to a city that doesn’t either.

The Chugiak High valedictorian was on the 5 a.m. bus out of the after-graduation “Grad Blast” celebration at the McDonald Center last week, just a couple hours before the a 7 a.m. Advanced Placement History exam at South High. Most people might grab a quick nap, but Smith and his friends decided to squeeze in a quick climb up Mt. Baldy in Eagle River before the test.


“Coffee,” Smith said.

Smith will need plenty of coffee in college, where he was accepted into the prestigious Global Business Honors program at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. A star baseball player for the Chugiak high school and American Legion teams, Smith also speaks German and hopes to go into international business.

So it was a natural that Smith chose Fordham.

“New York has kind of been calling me for a while,” he said.

Though it seems he never rests, Smith actually said it was his ability to pull back from his ambitions that allowed him to become Chugiak’s top student.

“I think the biggest thing with me primarily would have been balance,” he said. “I knew my limits.”

Smith said becoming valedictorian and getting to speak at graduation was a huge honor, but said high school is only one step toward graduates’ larger goals.

“It’s kind of a stepping stone to what we do next,” he said.

Collin Dyches

School: Eagle River High

Parents: Michael and Abbie Dyches

Leadership comes naturally to Collin Dyches.

Not only was Dyches first in his class, he’s also the first valedictorian produced by the school’s award-winning AFJROTC program, where he served as a squadron commander.

“He was an outstanding cadet,” said program instructor Bill McNew.

Dyches plans to follow his father into the Army and will attend the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York after receiving an appointment by U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan. Dyches said he hopes to become an aviation officer in the Army.

In an interview Tuesday, Dyches said he’s looking forward to the challenge of West Point and said he’s driven to serve because he believes he has an obligation to serve others.

“Obviously there’s a lot more financially rewarding careers but psychologically knowing what you’re doing is for a bigger purpose is pretty important to me and why I chose that career path.”

Though he’s Eagle RIver’s highest achieving senior, Dyches was quick to credit his family and teachers during his graduation speech at Sullivan Arena.

“The caliber of our school staff is just tremendous,” he said.

Dyches is an avid climber and hiker (he’s planning a climb in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains this spring) who said the only drawback of attending West Point will be leaving his beloved backyard Chugach Mountains.

“Nothing can compare to Alaska.”

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