Chelsey Allder, Deseret News
Students receive Sterling Scholar awards at the LDS Conference Center Theatre in Salt Lake City Tuesday, March 10, 2015.

Michael Ballam, general director of the Utah Festival Opera and professor of music at Utah State University, has been associated with the Sterling Scholar program for close to 50 years — first as a Sterling Scholar winner in music in 1969 and then as a judge for the program for close to 20 years.

The thing that keeps him coming back, he said, is the talent and overall excellence exhibited by the young scholars.

“We celebrate athletic prowess very well, which is important,” Ballam said. “We don’t celebrate genius and service enough. Deseret News and the Sterling Scholar program does just that. I have been grateful for that for nearly half a century now.”

Similarly, Max Adams, the 2015 Business and Marketing category winner for the Wasatch Front, said that for him, the best part of participating in the program was his association with the other nominees: “In the end, Sterling Scholar is all about the people in it, and the people are the very best," he said.

Recognizing the sterling quality of Utah’s high school seniors was the brainchild of former Deseret News education editor Lavor K. Chaffin, who envisioned a program that would recognize scholastic achievement in the same way sports competition recognized athletic ability.

Deseret Management Corp., the parent company of both the Deseret News and KSL Broadcast Group, continues to support this philosophy. The charitable giving arm of DMC, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Foundation, provides funding for the scholarships.

Nominees are judged, not only for their scholastic accomplishments, but also on their leadership and service efforts. Many nominees have achieved high academic marks, including ranking first in their class and/or scoring high on their college entrance exams. Some have already participated in university-level coursework or research or have worked at a professional level.

In addition to an intense academic workload, nominees also have organized humanitarian projects, worked as peer tutors or as mentors to younger kids, and engaged in or coordinated service at local, national or international venues.

Justine Rupprecht, for example, a 2015 Dance category winner, was also service president for the Utah Family, Career and Community Leaders of America and participated in a humanitarian trip to Haiti.

Many past winners have also competed and won a broad array of contests and participated in various extracurricular activities, such as Sarah Farnsworth, 2015 Social Science Scholar, who — besides scoring a 36 composite ACT and being heavily involved in Women in Action club at her high school — was on the Alta High School volleyball team and a member of the Alta LDS seminary council.

The Sterling Scholar program is independently implemented in five regions throughout the state: Wasatch Front, Central Utah, Northeast Utah, Southeast Utah and Southwest Utah. Only the Wasatch Front Region is directly administered by the Deseret News and KSL Broadcast Group.

To accommodate more than 1,000 nominees from 80 high schools within the Wasatch Front, the region is also broken up into three areas (North, Central and South). On Tuesday, judges will gather at Ben Lomond High School in Ogden, Copper Hills High School in West Jordan and West Lake High School in Saratoga Springs to consider which of this year’s semifinalists will proceed to the finals competition and ultimately be named among the Sterling Scholars of 2016.

Today’s special section contains the group photographs of nominees from high schools within the Wasatch Front, Southwest, Central and Northeast regions. Students from each high school are nominated in one of 14 categories — English, mathematics, social science, science, world languages, computer technology, skilled and technical sciences education, family and consumer sciences, business and marketing, speech/theater arts/forensics, visual arts, dance, instrumental music and vocal performance.

After being appointed by their schools, nominees spend months and countless hours preparing a portfolio that acts as a category-based showpiece or a summary of their hard work in their categories throughout their academic careers. Nominees are then judged in their category fields. Tuesday’s semifinal competition within the Wasatch Front Region will winnow down close to 1,000 nominees to 210 finalists to the 14 regional winners to be recognized at a special awards ceremony at the LDS Conference Center Little Theatre Thursday, March 10.

The Southwest Region competition will be held at Dixie State University Thursday, April 7, including a banquet for Scholars and their families at Dixie State prior to the awards ceremony. The Central Region competition and awards ceremony will be held at the Sevier Valley Center in Richfield, Utah, Tuesday, March 15. And the Northeast Region competition will be held in Kamas, Utah, Monday, April 18. Their banquet and awards ceremony will be at the Dejorian Center the same evening.

In addition to the scholarship money awarded to each category winner, 15 universities, colleges and business and technical schools offer scholarships to winners and runners-up. Additional information about these scholarships is included in this section.

Two special awards will also be presented — the Philo T. Farnsworth Excellence in Education/Governor’s Award and the Douglas F. Bates Community Service Award. A member of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s staff will present the Farnsworth/Governor’s Award in recognition of outstanding scholarship in a technical field. The Douglas F. Bates Award is named for the late Douglas F. Bates, a longtime administrator for the Utah State Office of Education.

Samuel Adams, as the 2015 World Languages category winner as well as the General Sterling Scholar for the Wasatch Front Region, won some $4,000 in scholarship money as well as a full-tuition scholarship to the University of Utah. But as “incredible” as it was to be named a winner, Adams said the true value of the Sterling Scholar experience for him was also embedded in the process. After months of hard work preparing a portfolio showcasing his achievements within his category and persevering through two rounds of interviews, Adams said winning was simply “icing on the cake.”

“Yes, it was incredible being recognized, but I also found a great deal of satisfaction looking through my portfolio just before I went to submit my final version,” he said. “It gave me insight into my strengths and weaknesses and helped give me direction in setting my goals for the future.”

Linda K. Stokes, director of the Sterling Scholar program, said, “Whether you’ve been nominated by a high school, or you’ve made it to the finals, or you’re a category winner, the colleges and universities in Utah still offer scholarships because they recognize the value and quality of the students that compete within the program.”