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Sterling Scholars face judgment day

195 students make presentations to panel of 3 judges

One student in California on Tuesday might have caused America to wonder yet again what's wrong with teenagers today. But on Wednesday at Murray High School 195 students were giving every indication that the kids are all right.

Sterling Scholar finalists from 52 high schools along the Wasatch Front spent the afternoon showing they were glad to be in school by reviewing their academic achievements in front of judges, who by early evening had determined the 13 winners of $1,000 scholarships each. The recipients won't be named until the 40th annual Deseret News-KSL Television Sterling Scholar Awards ceremony at Cottonwood High School on March 28.

"It's kind of weird to be here doing this and thinking what it must be like today at that high school," Ryan Morley, a Box Elder High School senior, said, referring to the shooting at Santana High School east of San Diego.

"There are a lot of pressures in school, I think for everybody," Morley said just before his 10-minute finalist interview with the three judges in the social science category. "Everybody has to have an outlet, but why somebody would choose that one . . . I don't know."

The pressure to pursue excellence was the obvious driving force for the finalists, an effort that culminated with one last pitch to the judges who conducted three-on-one interviews all afternoon.

"I'm not sure why I put myself through this," said Gary Ryan Bayles, a finalist in the trade and technical education category. "Actually, I do know. It's a pretty prestigious award, and I think getting ready really gave me the chance to figure out and have an opinion about what I want to do with my life." He plans to be a horse clinician. "That's someone who trains horses the humane way."

When asked to describe the afternoon's activities the students could have been describing a root canal — a necessary procedure best when it's over with. The tension of being culled from 675 students in the first round two weeks earlier was apparent as students paced hallways, reviewed notes and gave each other last-minute advice such as, "If you don't know it now you're not going to know it in the interview."

In the tradition of actors who wish each other good luck by telling each other to "break a leg," some students offered similar sentiments: "Just remember, you suck." Or, "It's brutal in there; they'll draw blood if you're not careful."

Still, all-in-all those interviewed said despite having jitters they were glad for the opportunity and that the greatest value of it was in having to get ready.

"Just putting together the portfolio of your history and reviewing and examining everything up to this point seems to have its own worth and gives perspective," said Paul Felt, an Ogden High School finalist in the English category.

Felt, who scored a perfect 800 in the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, said in his interview that he hasn't figured out exactly what career he wants to pursue. He plans to write in some fashion, "although I haven't written anything yet that I'm particularly proud of." The juggler/musician/volunteer tutor told judges, "I'm not good at anything yet, but I enjoy a lot of things."

Benjamin Cummings is good at math. The Northridge High School finalist said after his interview that he believes that "life is math. It's all based on mathematical principles that are applicable in so many ways. And even if you never use math in your job or never use calculus or anything ever again, the least math does is it teaches you to think."

Sanaz Ghaffarian, a Layton High School finalist in science collecting her thoughts just before her interview, said preparing information for the judges confirmed her desire to pursue a career in medical science. The school's chemistry student of the year said science is a perfect fit for her because "science is all about curiosity."

"I've never been one to want to just be told the answer," she told her panel of judges. "I want to know the procedure of how to get to that answer. I have a drive to understand the details, and that can drive my teachers crazy sometimes."