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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Amanda Hackworth, of West Jordan High School, warms up for her dance interview and performance as students take part in the semifinal rounds of judging for Sterling Scholars at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

WEST JORDAN — When Berkeley Perschon was little, she says talking to her peers and teachers "terrified" her.

No visible trace of that shyness remained Tuesday as Perschon sat in the Copper Hills High School lunch room preparing to share her passion for public speaking with judges of the 2019 Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholar program for the Wasatch Front region during semifinal judging.

"I wouldn't talk to my classmates, my teachers, so I threw myself into public speaking as a way to kind of overcome my fear. And over the years, it's kind of become something that I've become incredibly passionate about," Perschon told the Deseret News with a smile.

Now, she's seeing the culmination of years of practice. Perschon recalled a memory from two years ago, when she went to her cousin's high school graduation and saw one of her debate competitors.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Kaitlyn Sciortino, of American Preparatory Academy West Valley II, warms up her voice prior to her interview and performance in the Vocal Performance category in the semifinal rounds of judging for Sterling Scholars at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

"When I saw that he was a Sterling Scholar, and there was a Sterling Scholar category for speech and debate, I knew that was something that I wanted to pursue. And so I spent kind of all throughout high school saying, 'OK, this is my goal,'" Perschon explained.

When she won her school's nomination in the Speech/Theater Arts/Forensics category, she became the first nominee in eight years in that category at Taylorsville High School whose emphasis is debate rather than theater arts.

Likewise, Awais Ahmad's passion for science started young.

"I've always had a passion for science because growing up, my parents wanted me to become a doctor or engineer. And at first, I was like really hesitant about everything, but as time went on, I realized that I had a passion for science and I wanted to become a surgeon. So science is just really interesting to me," Ahmed said.

"I've always wanted to be a role model for my siblings, so Sterling Scholar is a way to do it," he said.

Perschon and Ahmad were just two of dozens of the Beehive State's brightest who swarmed the halls of the high school Tuesday, nerves running high as they readied to showcase their skills. Some carried instruments, some wore dance apparel and others wore suits.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Spencer Hopson, of East High School, looks up over the piano at his mom after playing a short warm-up before his interview and performance in the Instrumental Music category in the semifinal rounds of judging for Sterling Scholars at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

The top scholars in each category move on to the final judging later this month. The winners will be announced at an awards ceremony March 15 at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Conference Center's Little Theater.

The program, which was started by the Deseret News in the 1960s, encourages academic excellence by awarding scholarships and publicly recognizing some of Utah's top high school seniors. Nominees are judged for their academic achievements as well as their leadership and service to their communities.

Eden Starks, a West Jordan High School student, hopes to someday help teach the next generation American Sign Language.

Her category in the competition is World Languages. She says sign language helps her "learn about new cultures, and so being able to use ASL and get involved in deaf culture has been really exciting and unique."

She became interested in the topic as a child. The mother of one of her best friends was deaf, she said, and the language sparked her interest. She plans to begin studying ASL and deaf studies education at Utah Valley University.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Baylee Dowdle, of Riverton High School, uses her phone to listen to music as she prepares for her interview and performance in the Dance category in the semifinal rounds of judging for Sterling Scholars at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

"And hopefully, my end goal, would be to get ASL in middle schools," Starks said.

Michael Delgado, from the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science, and a candidate in the English category, said he hopes to use his skill to help others.

"I've always liked to write, and I like to tell stories. I find that underprivileged people who miss the opportunity to talk about their stories and where they come from, need a voice. I think that, for me, writing has been that voice," Delgado explained.

As Ava Oertle, a student at Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts, warmed up ahead of her dance solo in front of judges, she explained how her love for dance has kept her on her toes for 15 years.

"I just really like being in the studio, and I think it's a lot about self-improvement and how you have to motivate yourself to improve, and I really like to perform. Performing is one of the highlights," she said.

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Oertle said she hasn't thought about how it will feel if she wins the title. "It'll be crazy. I don't know, it's just, I haven't really thought about getting all the way. I just kind of go one step at a time."

Similarly, Olivia Olschewski, a pianist who attends Hunter High School, said to win a scholarship will be "nice" but participating in the competition has been a reward in and of itself.

"Just being able to say, you know, that I went for it, whether or not I go further. Just to be able to say that I did it," Oschewski said.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Students wait for their turns in the semifinal rounds of judging for Sterling Scholars at Copper Hills High School in West Jordan on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.

Correction: A previous version incorrectly said the Sterling Scholar semifinals took place on Monday. They were on Tuesday.