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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Bonneville High's Mackenzie Jenkins giggles nervously while waiting to meet the Sterling Scholar judges at Northridge High on Wednesday.__Ben Lomond's Cori Kirkland practices her drumming before being judged Wednesday.

PROVO — Nervousness was a common feeling at Timpview High School Wednesday after school as hundreds of seniors in business attire waited to be interviewed for one of the most prestigious awards a Utah high schooler can receive — a Sterling Scholar Award.

Groups of students gathered in the library talking strategy as they waited for the first round of judging in the 50th annual Deseret News KSL 5 Television Sterling Scholar Awards program. Only about one in four would go onto the finals.

William Palomo, from Bingham High School, was pacing back and forth, mumbling to himself, in front of a door with a bright pink sign that said English as he waited for his turn to be interviewed.

English is one of 13 different Sterling Scholar categories for which seniors could apply. Palomo said he has been writing poetry since he was in the first grade and hopes to pursue an undergraduate degree at a place like Princeton, Harvard or Westminister.

"Poetry for me is a way to intimately reach out to someone else," Palomo said. "Some poems have changed my life."

He said the title of Sterling Scholar would be an "honor" and would help him financially, as his family does not have money for him to go to college.

"I look at my family living in different parts of the world, and I feel that if I don't seize every opportunity I have, like this one, I would be careless."

Like Palomo, many students were nervous before stepping in to be interviewed Wednesday afternoon.

Sean Pearce, from Timpanogos High, was quickly discussing the best way to answer certain questions with his three friends as they waited to be escorted to their interviews on science, social studies, math and computer technology.

Pearce said he had his parents hold mock interviews for him after dinner this last week, asking him questions like why he applied for the science award and what his future plans are. Pearce became interested in pursuing science after he was diagnosed with type I diabetes at 16. He hopes to some day come up with a cure for the disease.

Many other students had been preparing for this day for at least the last few weeks if not for several years.

Katie Nielson, who applied to the social sciences award, had her mom ask her questions at night while she was brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed. Erica Oldroyd, from Orem, practiced answering questions she might be asked in front of her mirror after school. And Elizabeth Kittell, from Payson, who applied for the dance award, had been practicing and preparing her routine before her drill practice and in her bedroom over the last month. Kittell started planning to apply for the Sterling Scholar award at age 12.

"I've wanted to be a Sterling Scholar since I first heard about it," Kittell said. "Dancing in high school, I looked up to the Sterling Scholars, and now I want to be a good example to my teammates."

But they are doing more than being good examples, said Sharon Johnson, coordinator for the event. They are learning skills that will prepare them for their future lives.

"It gives the kids a good opportunity to learn interviewing skills for when they go out into the real world and get jobs," Johnson said. "It also gives them a chance to look at what they have accomplished in their short life, which for most of them is quite a bit."

Some students had participated in their city's youth council or been in beauty pageants. Others had gone to foreign countries to help out on humanitarian projects or served as tutors to younger students. One senior was even preparing to apply for her own research grant.

John Medley, one of the social studies judges from Tooele, said narrowing down the students to five finalists per category was going to be tough.

"These students are leaders," Medley said. "They don't just join a group, they see a need for something at their school or in their community and they start a club or take a stand."

The 195 finalists, who will be printed in the Deseret News on Friday, will go through a second round of judging March 2. And the final 13 winners and 26 runners-up will be announced at Cottonwood High School at 7 p.m., March 23.