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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Sterling Scholar finalist Rowan Arave of West High shows judges Brent Watts, Eric Dowdle and Greg Olsen her art.

MURRAY — The contents of Murray High School seemed anything but typical Wednesday afternoon, as 195 ambitious teenagers were interviewed for the last time by a star-studded lineup of judges in their search for a prestigious Sterling Scholar award.

Among the daunting, expansive corridors of Spartan orange and black, students looking like future CEOs, wearing suits, dresses and confident demeanors defying their years were buzzing, both with nervous anticipation and relief. A conversation between two high-schoolers bemoaning how one "only scored a 31" on the ACT were oddly not out of place.

Such was the setting for the final round of judging in the annual Sterling Scholar Awards program, one of the most prestigious academic recognition programs for high-schoolers in Utah, now celebrating its 50th year. The competition, sponsored by Deseret News and KSL-TV, has narrowed down the original 741 nominees through weeks of arduous interviews and performances.

David Robinson of West High School said despite some initial nervousness interviewing with some seasoned judges, he felt pretty confident.

"This is the third time we've gone through the interview process, so you know you're going to say a little more," he said. "The process is pretty conversational. They want to get to know you, and I feel like I let them know who I am. I'll wait with my fingers crossed until I hear more."

Robinson, whose self-declared strong points lie in political science and history with an emphasis in the Cold War, said students don't really have the option of "fluffing it" in the meetings, citing truth and knowledge as the keys to success.

Other students, however, weren't quite so confident before their auditions.

David Lee of Lehi High School was part of the speech and drama category. He said it was incredibly nerve-wracking before his performance — especially when he found out multitalented musician Michael McLean would be among the judges.

"When I found out who Michael McLean was, I was a bit daunted but also excited because I'd heard of him before, and it was cool to meet him," Lee said. "He's a really nice guy and put me at ease. I just let go and was myself, and I felt like they enjoyed that. I hope I was a fresh breath of air."

McLean was one of many notables present at the competition, including Southern Utah University President Michael Benson, Salt Lake Community College President Cynthia Bioteau and artists Greg Olsen and Eric Dowdle.

Pianist Ubeeng Kueq from East High School said although his interview seemed to go well — which for students involved in the arts consists of both a performance and questions — he'd much rather play for the length of the meeting rather than speak.

Kueq began playing piano after he moved to Salt Lake City from Taiwan.

"There's a sense of accomplishment every time I get a piece down," he said, wielding the sheet music to Liszt's "Piano Sonanta in B Minor," roughly the size of a small chapter book. "There's so much to music you can never fully explore. I've been working on this particular piece for over a year now, but every time I take it to my lesson, there's always something new and fascinating. You really get to express yourself in music."

Already accepted to the University of Utah, Kueq said he hopes to someday help other kids be afforded the same academic and musical opportunities he has enjoyed.

One of the Sterling Scholar finalists, Britany LeSueur of Lone Peak High, suffered a major setback only a few weeks before this important part of the competition.

Right after the regional portion of the process, she fell on some ice and suffered a radial head fracture in her arm — a devastating development, since her area of expertise is dance. Two weeks of doctor's appointments and hard work followed.

"I tried to keep as much of my original routine as I could, but some of it I couldn't," LeSueur said. "It could've easily been looked at as a disadvantage, but I think when we're faced with those kind of limitations, it allows us to be more creative. It definitely allowed me to find a lot more ways of do things I would've never thought of."

With mature poise and ambition, LeSueur and the other finalists said they have valued the opportunity to take part in the competition and do so well.

"It's been a lot of work and a lot of waiting, but I think it's definitely been worth it," she said. "It's helped me realize a lot of stuff about myself, also. I know I'm going to keep my portfolio for a long time ... (and) while winning would be awesome, whatever happens happens."

The final 13 winners and 26 runners-up will be announced at Cottonwood High School at 7 p.m. March 23.

e-mail: clarson@desnews.com