SALT LAKE CITY — When the Deseret News and KSL started their scholarship program in 1962, the word "sterling" was an obvious choice.
According to sterlingscholar.org, a "sterling" thing was "pure and valuable and scholar seemed like a natural second word choice hence (the name) Sterling Scholar was created."
Honoring students who exemplified academic excellence and community service was what drove Sterling Scholars' founders to take action.
The program began when Deseret News columnist Steve Hale, education reporter Lavor Chaffin and director of marketing Keith West realized that although the paper recognized the impressive achievements of local student-athletes, “outstanding academic scholars were not recognized in any manner," the Sterling Scholars website wrote. The group proposed the idea of an academic scholarship program to the Salt Lake Board of Education, and the program was formed.
Within a year, the scholarship program expanded beyond Salt Lake City to include schools in Cache, Davis and Utah counties. Now, the Sterling Scholars program covers five regions of Utah and includes charter schools.
For 57 years, Sterling Scholars program has offered annual scholarships to exceptional students throughout Utah. After a three-tier selection process involving school-based, regional and final interviews, students in subject-specific categories such as mathematics, marketing, world languages, dance, art, vocal performance, science and literature are awarded a scholarship at a final ceremony.
While the first program contained only 12 categories, the 2019 competition contains 14, with the addition of computer technology and dance. Many of the categories, such as home economics and speech/drama categories have been modernized or redefined.
Beyond discovering outstanding students, many internal considerations go into running the program. Jim Wall, the former president and publisher of Deseret News who oversaw the program from 2000-2010, spoke about the program’s driving motivation and evolution over time.
“We had a wonderful administrator, Sharon Johnson, who had made incredible inroads into the high schools throughout the state," he said. "She had counselors, she had Sterling Scholars representatives in most Utah schools and the program was pretty well-decided on what the criteria for Sterling Scholars would be and how the judging would work.”
Johnson, a former schoolteacher who directed the Sterling Scholars program from 1998-2010 — referring to the competition as “her baby, so to speak,” — said that the program’s success depended largely on forming relationships with school principles, creating a rapport with exceptional judges and refining the program’s selection criteria.
One of the most notable changes Johnson implemented during her time as director was the inclusion of nationally recognized professional and academic judges in the final round.
“I had presidents of the universities come (judge the competition)," Johnson said. "I got people who are outstanding in their field, people that students admired. The students were so excited, they would come out of their interview and tell us — 'oh, you can’t believe who my judges were.' And they would say, 'is there any way I can meet these other judges because I admire them so much.'”
Thanks to Johnson and Wall’s efforts, Sterling Scholars participants are now judged by local and national leaders — the president of the Utah Jazz, a postgraduate-level Brigham Young University mathematics professor, the director of Tanner Dance and the general director of the Utah Festival Opera have been among the many expert judges that evaluated Sterling Scholars candidates in the final round.
“The program gained a lot of credibility,” Wall recalled. “Students were well-rewarded. They got scholarships. They had great acknowledgement, and I think generally a Sterling Scholar was really recognized throughout the state.”
However, because of the program’s competitive nature, ensuring the fair evaluation of students was — and, continues to be — one of Sterling Scholars administrators' primary concerns. Examining students holistically, evaluating grades fairly and creating equal opportunities for students in alternative school settings such as charter schools was key to improving the Sterling Scholars program.
For example, Wall recalled a “minor controversy” caused by potential inequality between students' grades, since some schools and teachers were said to grade easier than others.
“So, what we did is, we put a lot of effort into our interviews," Wall said. "You can tell a bright student, you can tell when you ask them the questions, what their study habits were and how they fit time to study, and then an incredible amount of extracurricular activity.”
Ultimately, the program’s winners were determined by their character traits. “High integrity,” communication skills and on-the-spot problem solving abilities were the final factors which distinguished one Sterling Scholar candidate from another, Wall said.
“They could be really, really intelligent, but if they couldn’t communicate well, that was a problem,” Wall explained. Judges would sometimes "throw in questions outside of a student's category, just to see how they would react,” Johnson added.
Overall, creating a positive experience for candidates while finding genuine examples of passionate scholarship in the local community was on both Wall and Johnson's minds while developing the program.1 comment on this story
“Teachers were happy to promote these students,” Wall said. “Not everybody can be a winner, but you can have examples — honoring excellence and honoring a commitment to community. And that was our goal, to choose those students who are good examples.
"And if you go to Sterling Scholars the evening we're presenting the awards, you just can't help but fall in love with the whole program. You have students, they're cheering for each other, you have student bodies that have their kids there … they knew who was up, and when you start announcing the winners, you get goosebumps with the support that they're getting,” Wall said. “So I think it's wholesome, uplifting. You honor education, you honor integrity. And if not us, who?”