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Brainiacs all, Utah's top high school seniors compete to become Sterling Scholars

WEST JORDAN — Sitting in a booth in the cafeteria of Copper Hills High School, Herriman High School senior Sabrina Lin drew a deep breath and attempted to explain her passion for the visual arts.

"When I was really young, my parents originally had a goal for me to be in a professional career because that makes money and they wanted their children to be well off, especially my mom," Lin said. At the time, Lin's family was living in a "poverty stricken area of Brooklyn" so her parents were particularly insistent that she find a career path "that could do well in the future."

Lin said she struggled to find a niche — until her first elementary school art class.

"The minute I started drawing, it felt like I could finally be able to show my emotions in a way I couldn't at my house. They just didn't want me to be in a visual art career, especially with the stigma you're not going to make a lot of money," she said.

By creating art, Lin found her "happy place" and the courage to stand up and say "this is what I want to showcase to the world," she said.

On Thursday, Lin showcased her artwork to judges of the 2018 Deseret News/|KSL Sterling Scholar program for the Wasatch Front during semifinal judging.

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 13 at the LDS Church Conference Center 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.

Lin, pulling a cart that held paintings, drawings and sculpture, met with a panel of judges where she showed them her artwork, discussed her plans for the future (attending the University of Utah's Honor College) and her long-term goal of providing arts education to children in less-developed countries.

"My philosophy is, art is truly the origin where you can create an idea and run with it. That's where innovation and invention stem off of, the arts," she said.

Nominees from 14 categories ranging from mathematics to speech and theater met individually with a panel of judges. Those in the dance, vocal performance or instrumental music categories performed for the judges in addition to undergoing interviews. Semifinal judging also occurred at Ogden's Ben Lomond High School and Corner Canyon High School in Draper.

Sabah Sial, a senior at Hillcrest High School competing in the speech and theater category, gave a two-minute speech on the importance of opening up opportunities for women in medicine beyond pediatrics and gynecology.

"I brought up studies from the Wall Street Journal. I talked about how the images that show up in Google when you look for what a doctor or surgeon looks like, about 70 percent of those are men. It's not the fault of the images, they're simply capturing what the medical profession looks like," Sial said.

Sial, a seasoned speech and debate competitor, plans to major in biology "and hopefully go into medicine after that."

It's no small exaggeration to say that each of the nominees is a brainiac. Most of them have been admitted to multiple colleges or universities with some still waiting to hear from some of the nation's most selective institutions.

Jakob Barrus, a senior at Cottonwood High School and one of 15 competitors in the social studies category, is waiting to hear if has been accepted at Stanford University.

He has designs on studying political science or history, studying abroad, learning more about international relations and possibly becoming a diplomat.

"Something like that would be a dream," he said.

Barrus, who is part Native American, said he is particularly interested in social issues involving American Indian tribes. One issue close to home and close to his heart include the Bears Ears National Monument designation and President Donald Trump's decision to slash the size of the monument, which left countless artifacts unprotected and the area open to natural resource extraction, he said.

"I'd like to focus my studies on social issues and hopefully I can use them someday to start programs in schools and reservations like the group I'm a part of, Latinos in Action. I want to start something that can help empower kids to see that they can become leaders in their community, they can bring change to their community and they can better themselves every day academically, socially and any way they see possible," he said.

Abbigale Roller, a senior at Riverton High School competing in the business and marketing category, has been starting her own businesses since childhood.

"I've always been that one person that's 'Oh, I love lemonade stands!' But I took it to a whole new level. At 13 years old, I started my own Princess Club and decided to make a little area where kids can come and learn manners, grow and have a great social atmosphere. I've learned these little tweeks here and there over the years how to grow and create businesses. I've always loved it," she said.

She's moved on from the Princess Club but is now employed as a marketer and public relations director for a health-related company. Roller is also active in Distributive Education Clubs of America and Future Business Leaders of America.

While all of the competitors in her category are accomplished, Roller said she hoped her passion for business would win over the judges.

Still, it's stressful to compete among the state's top scholars, she said.

"There's just so many people I feel could deserve it more than me," Roller said.

"If you look at these high schoolers, they're so beautiful and amazing."