MURRAY — Hugging and dancing in circles, Rachel Kennedy, Erin Hunt and Amanda Ricks let loose their enthusiasm and squealed congratulations to each other as they came offstage Wednesday night, having just been named three of Utah's Sterling Scholars for 2011.
"I just feel ecstatic," said Kennedy of Box Elder High School. "This is all of the hard work paying off. I'm seeing the success of all the little things I've done in my life."
Kennedy, the Sterling Scholar for Family and Consumer Sciences, said it was her mom who taught her to sew and cook, developing skills that would turn into a lifelong passion.
Kennedy, Hunt and Ricks are three of 13 students named Regional Sterling Scholars at Cottonwood High School on Wednesday night. Chosen from among 195 finalists from 57 high schools across the Wasatch Front, the winners are students who have excelled in categories ranging from science to visual arts, showing scholastic acuity, community service, personal motivation and leadership skills in their respective categories.
Michael Benson, president of Southern Utah University, helped judge the Sterling Scholar competition, along with LDS artist Greg Olsen, LDS musician Michael McLean, Utah Valley University Dean Briant Farnsworth and Mormon Tabernacle Choir organist, Andrew Unsworth, among others.
Each Sterling Scholar winner was awarded $2,000 in cash, while the two runners-up in each category received $700. Two more students won the Douglas F. Bates Community Service Award and the Philo T. Farnsworth Governor's Excellence in Education Award and received $400 each. Several colleges in the Intermountain area that recognize the accomplishments of Sterling Scholar participants also offer scholarship opportunities to the competition finalists.
In addition to the cash scholarship awards provided by the sponsors of Sterling Scholars, the Deseret News and KSL 5 Television, all winners and runners-up received vouchers for Pioneer Theatre's upcoming production "Sunset Blvd.," courtesy of Chris Lino. The Utah Shakespeare Festival also donated vouchers to the students for any production this summer.
Erin Hunt of Alta High School was emotional after winning the award for Visual Arts and excited that it would help her pay for college.
"I never thought this would happen to me," she said. "The greatest part about it is being recognized as the artist, being known as creative and expressive. It's a part of humanity I love to be a part of because I can tell people things through my artwork."
After winning the music category, Amanda Ricks of Viewmont High School was also named the General Sterling Scholar from among the 13 winners and received an additional $2,500.
"I feel like I'm in a dream," Ricks said. "It's just a big honor. It's something I can tell people and be proud of."
When she was six years old, Ricks demanded that her mom let her begin piano lessons and she's been playing ever since. Winning both awards has made all of her hard work worth it.
Aimee Matheson, of Clearfield High School, started learning Spanish in sixth grade when her dad decided that it was important for his family to live in Spanish-speaking countries and learn to understand different cultures.
The Sterling Scholar of Foreign Language, Matheson has developed her academic, service and leadership skills by putting her Spanish to good use by traveling and doing humanitarian work in Guatemala.
Delian Asparouhov, Sterling Scholar of Mathematics and a student at West High School, said he is excited for how this award will help him in the future with school and internship opportunities. Asparouhov's father instilled a work ethic in him at a young age, quizzing him with math flashcards before he could even walk.
Most of the winners, like Jillian Dobrowolski of Layton High School, Sterling Scholar of Social Science, were shocked when their names were announced. Xin Zhan of Skyline High School, named the Sterling Scholar for Speech/Drama, felt the same way and said that this justifies all of the time and effort she has put into debate.
"The process has made me look back and I have never looked back at all I've accomplished. I didn't recognize myself.," Zhan said. "Debate is one of my few choices that I made by myself. It's defined my high school career."
Kate Coursey of West High School was named the Sterling Scholar of English and was still a little nervous, even after winning. Coursey loved books as a child and writing novels is the only thing she has ever wanted to do, a dream that has come true as she just recently completed her seventh novel.
"For me, it's more like an affirmation that you can be recognized for sort of more academic stuff, like writing," Coursey said. "Just working really hard at something, that you can be recognized.