Kolten Dunkerson can't remember a time when he wasn't passionate about cars. As a six-year-old, trips to Walmart were a chance to pick up an addition to his Matchbox collection. Each time, he'd think to himself, "Someday I'm going to build or own this car!"
It seems a natural progression, then, that Kolten-a 2011 honor graduate of La Porte High School-is this year's national SkillsUSA champion in auto refinishing. Kolten was announced as the first-place winner at the June 24 awards ceremony after a five-day competition in Kansas City, Missouri.
After a "nerve-wracking week" competing against 37 other state winners, Kolten joined thousands of others in the stadium for the awards ceremony.
"Okay, this is it; it's all or nothing," he thought to himself as the names of the bronze and then the silver medalists were called. "
I was absolutely relieved," Kolten said about hearing his name announced as the national champion. "It felt like there was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. All that work for that moment!"
Kolten's path to the 2011 championship started with first-place wins at both the district and state competitions in order to advance to the national event. However, his sight was set on winning the national competition after placing fourth in Kansas City in 2010, competing in the second-year contest even though he was only a first-year auto refinishing student.
Fourth place just wasn't good enough for Kolten, and he and his instructor, Valentin Trevino, spent their time during the trip home contemplating what they would need to do to bring the gold medal home the next year.
"Fourth place is definitely great, but it's one of those things that it's so close you want to take it that extra distance," Kolten said. After a brief break following last year's competition, Kolten was ready to focus on doing whatever it would take to win the national title.
"The second week of July, Kolten gave me a call and said, "All right, let's roll!" Trevino said.
Kolten spent many extra hours during the summer months and on weekends honing his skills to do his very best at the national level. Students who were also preparing for contest, as well as those who just love doing refinishing work, joined them on days off from school.
Juggling advanced classes, a part-time job, senior-year activities, and a quest for a national title was a careful balancing act, but Kolten was devoted to maintaining quality in all that he pursued.
A typical day during Kolten's senior year included a dual enrollment class (for both high school and college credit), followed by his auto refinishing classes and then another dual enrollment class.
After leaving school, he'd change clothes to go to his job at Best Buy, where he has been employed since 2009. Most of his spare time was spent working on perfecting his refinishing skills.
In addition to the many hours practicing for the contest, the competition itself included several exams, an interview, submission of a resume and completion of various projects.
Trevino explained that some of the stiffest competition was among Kolten's own classmates. Although La Porte students swept the awards at the District 8 competition, only the first-place winner advances at both the district and state contests, and they rallied in support of Kolten's pursuit of the national championship.
"The auto collision program is like a football team-we win as a whole," Trevino said. "Kolten was the one who caught the winning touchdown, but everyone on our team won. They rallied around him."
"They definitely backed me," Kolten said. "They wanted to see La Porte on the map."
Kolten also appreciated the support of his parents, Randy and Becky Dunkerson, and sister, Kirsten, as well as that of his girlfriend and a long list of extended family members. He also expressed his gratitude for Trevino, who he calls "a really cool guy and an awesome instructor."
"Mr. Trevino taught me anything and everything I could want to know about the field, and I appreciate it so much," Kolten said. "He gives us lots of one-on-one time and sacrifices his own personal time. This is not something we have to ask for; he volunteers."
This deep respect for his teacher made it even more special for Kolten to see Trevino receive his own gold medal at the awards ceremony.
In only his third year of taking students to SkillsUSA contests, Trevino has taken students to the national competition all three times. In 2009, LPHS student Brett Kelly placed 27th in Kansas City after winning first at both the district and state contests.
Trevino, who is in just his fifth year of teaching, also is a graduate of La Porte High School, where he studied auto refinishing under Noel Welch, who now teaches at Alvin High School.
"Without Mr. Welch, I wouldn't be where I am today," Trevino said. "I told him, 'Without your mentoring, without your help, I wouldn't be where I am-I'd probably be a kid with no direction.' I respect Mr. Welch so much."
Trevino explained that LPISD has demonstrated support for the program by providing students with up-to-date equipment they will need to know how to use in order to be successful in the workplace.
"We don't settle for average here, or for what everybody else has," Trevino said. "La Porte ISD wants industry standard. The kids have no reason to fail because they are given everything they possibly can get to be the best out there."
As a sophomore, Kolten decided he wanted to take one of La Porte High School's many career and technical education courses, and he fell in love with auto refinishing. At that time, he didn't realize how profoundly it would impact his future.
As national champion, Kolten was awarded another $25,000 scholarship to Universal Technical Institute in Houston, added to the $22,000 he has already received to further his education. After completing UTI, he plans to earn a business degree at the University of Houston, although he is still undecided about his plans after that.
"I'd ultimately love to have a shop someday," he said, describing his dream business of doing custom jobs, restoration work and building vehicles from the ground up. In fact, one of his favorite pastimes is working with his father on a Jeep that they have had for many years.
Kolten now looks forward to the possible opportunity of competing at the World Skills America competition in Germany in 2013. The high scorer of the national champions from 2010, 2011 and 2012 will advance to this international contest.
As for the other students in the program, Kolten has set the bar high, and LPHS students who have looked up to him are ready to take on the challenge. Trevino said that at least eight of his students are already thinking about district competition for 2011-12.
"I want every kid in my program to be better than I am," Trevino said. "It's not an insult to me; I want them to go beyond what I can do. If you're better than I am, I know that I've done my job."
"We're going to put out the best effort we can," he continued. "To say that we 're the best in district-that makes me proud. To say we're the best in state-that's icing on the cake. To say we're number one in the nation-you can't beat that! It's Cloud 9!"