SALT LAKE CITY — “I feel like my whole life was kind of a process of getting ready for Sterling Scholars,” Addie Wray told the Deseret News. Wray was 2018’s vocal performance Sterling Scholar. For her and the other students, the journey to become a Sterling Scholars, one of Utah's more rigorous scholarship programs, started long before their senior year.
“All the people in my high school and all the people that I met at the award ceremony had over 30 on the ACT and everyone had a 4.0,” Natalie Tonks, last year’s social science scholar said, “which is funny because I had a 3.97.”
Wray had a similar experience and said she had one of the lowest ACT scores of anyone she met at the competition, despite it being objectively high.
While the academic expectations alone are rigorous, that is far from all it takes. Jolynn Wright, a Lone Peak High counselor who works with students applying to the program, wrote in an email interview with the Deseret News, "Sterling Scholars is a balance between academics, category expertise, leadership, and service. Kids have to be involved from the beginning. A student cannot start their senior year and accomplish all that is necessary to be successful, that is not what excellence is, that is not what a Sterling Scholar is."
Sterling Scholars portfolios include work for the student's chosen category, whether that be mathematics, social science, music, English or any of the 14 categories. But Wray said it was important to also participate in things outside her category. Sterling Scholars have to show passion in their category while still excelling in other areas.
“There were a lot of days where I didn't see the sun. I had early-morning seminary because I had too many extracurricular classes and then I stayed at rehearsal until 10 o'clock at night,” Wray said.
Service is another big consideration in the competition, and these scholars don’t disappoint. Tonks helped with food and clothing drives for hurricane victims, organized Christmas gifts for a developmental shelter, volunteered for Better Days 2020 and proved herself a prime candidate for social sciences by volunteering for political campaigns.
Vikrant Ragula, 2018’s General Sterling Scholar, went above and beyond in service. He volunteered with a food bank, worked on voter registration and helped pass a bond to rebuild Skyline High School. While those alone would be plenty, he still did more.
“The biggest one, I think, that helped me stand out … was my project I conducted in Africa … to help bring water to several villages,” Ragula said, “which also expanded to becoming trying to help set up a school and provide them the technology needed to … provide a 21st-century education.”
After years of excelling, participating and serving the scholars compile it all into a hefty portfolio. For Wray it came out to a 45-page document. Ragula said creating his portfolio was the most difficult part of the competition.
“It was making me have to actually think about what I did for three years in high school and find all the information to help substantiate my claims, while at the same time finding what made me unique and what I was passionate about,” he said.
On top of showing all their accomplishments, they are required to write essays illustrating challenges they've overcome in their lives.
At the competition the students are interviewed by a panel of judges, and these aren’t your easy interviews. After reading the portfolios the judges tailor the questions to each student.
“My judge just kind of pushed me a lot, which I liked, but he pressed me really hard on a single issue — he got into some really esoteric, nitty-gritty, random things about politics,” Tonks said.
“Each year, we are in awe of the accomplishments of these young people,” Wright wrote. “When we attend the awards ceremony, we hear of the candidates from other schools, and remind ourselves that there are kids all over this state that are actively engaged in excellence.”
The past winners had some words of advice for any future hopefuls. Ragula recommended finding things you are passionate about: “It will make you more genuine and the people reading your portfolio and interviewing you will actually see your passion. That's the most important thing for them.”
Tonks advised making friends at the competition and being confident in your work. Wray’s biggest pointer was also confidence — something she found challenging in the competition.
“You got to push yourself to be able to get to places like that, so when I was actually reaching the finals or when I actually won it was kind of unbelievable, because I always felt like there was more that needed to be done,” Wray said.Comment on this story
Despite all the time, work and stress, the scholars agreed the experience was worth it.
“I cannot imagine going through high school without being so involved,” Wray said. “That's really what made memories — that's what made it so, so enjoyable,”
So yes, these students really go above and beyond. Is it too much? Wright said she doesn't think engaging in stressful things is bad for these students.
“I personally believe that my students and my own children not only can do hard things, but they must do hard things, in order to be prepared for the world that awaits them.”