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English language learner who became an award-winning writer, speaker is top Sterling Scholar for 2020

Cindy Phan, 17, this year’s Sterling Scholar General Scholarship winner, poses for a photo in her room at her home in West Valley City on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Cindy Phan, 17, this year’s Sterling Scholar General Scholarship winner, poses for a photo in her room at her home in West Valley City on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Most days, the academic day at Skyline High School starts at 7:30 a.m. and it can be a push for students who live in the neighborhood to get there on time.

Then there’s Cindy Phan. Five days a week she has traveled across the Salt Lake Valley from her West Valley home to take part in Skyline High School’s International Baccalaureate program. It has meant getting up early, a near 20-mile trip to school — often in the dark and during winter, in snow and on icy roads — and another at the end of the school day. It’s meant committing to a rigorous curriculum and earning a 4.0 GPA.

Then again, Phan learned early on that it takes hard work and perseverance to overcome significant challenges.

Phan’s first language is Vietnamese. Her immigrant parents knew little English, so as a small child, Phan was largely on her own to learn to speak, read and write English.

“Although my parents supported me the best they could, their own inability with the language prevented them from teaching me themselves,” Phan wrote in her portfolio for the Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholar Program.

Phan said she learned English by reading and writing and being immersed in the language in a public school classrooms five days a week.

She said she mastered spoken English last, but she has persevered to the point she’s qualified for national competitions in debate and original oratory.

Cindy Phan, 17, this year’s Sterling Scholar General Scholarship winner, poses for a photo at her home in West Valley City on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Cindy Phan, 17, this year’s Sterling Scholar General Scholarship winner, poses for a photo at her home in West Valley City on Thursday, March 19, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Phan has also won state and national awards for writing, including National Young Arts Winner for 2020 and a two-time gold medal winner in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Adding to that resume, Phan has been selected General Scholarship winner of the 58th annual Deseret News/KSL Sterling Scholar Program. Phan also was selected winner of the program’s English category.

Phan earned a 36 composite score on the ACT and 1,600 on the SAT, the highest scores possible. She attained early admission to Harvard University and is waiting to hear whether she’ll be admitted to Stanford and Yale universities. Then she’ll have to choose where she’ll take the next steps in her education.

“It’s a hard decision,” she said.

Phan has a passion for English but she is unsure what college major she will select. Perhaps she’ll become a teacher or go into medicine to help underserved communities.

“Growing up in a Vietnamese community and as a low-income student, going to the doctors was always a last resort. I want to extend the reach of health care into those communities,” Phan is quoted in a Granite School District online story about her early admission to Harvard.

Phan told the Deseret News that her stellar academic performance took a lot of hard work and a willingness to commit to a journey that got worse before it got better.

“But you have to be willing to weather those rough times in order to get to the good, and you have to learn to be able to internally motivate and validate yourself. What is most important is being able to go out and look for opportunities of self-improvement without anyone telling you to,” Phan said.

Phan was selected the Sterling Scholar General Scholarship winner among the scholars selected as winners in each of 14 categories, which include business and marketing; computer technology; dance; English; family and consumer sciences; instrumental music; mathematics; science; skilled and technical sciences education; social science; speech/theater arts/forensics; visual arts; vocal performance and world languages.

Three of the category winners attend Granite School District high schools, two each hail from Alpine, Canyons and Davis school districts, respectively, and one each from Provo and Jordan Districts and one from the Academy for Math Engineering and Science, a public charter school.

Ordinarily, winners of the Sterling Scholar recognition program are announced during a ceremony attended by students, families, educators and community members, which in recent years has been held in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Conference Center Little Theater.

This year, the winners were notified via email and the winners and runners names and biographies were posted online when the event had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Sterling Scholar program was started by the Deseret News in the 1960s. It 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.

Each of the finalists was selected by their Wasatch Front high schools and advanced through progressive rounds of judging. The final round was held at Cottonwood High School in Murray on Feb. 28.

Sterling Scholar category winners receive $2,500 scholarships and runners-up are awarded $1,000 scholarships by the Deseret News and KSL.

As the General Scholarship winner, Phan also receives an additional $2,500 scholarship.

They also are eligible for scholarships and tuition waivers at a number of Utah colleges and universities.

The Sterling Scholar recognition program also offers two special awards: one that recognizes outstanding innovation and is named for the American inventor known as a pioneer of television technology. The other, named for executive and philanthropist Gail Miller, recognizes a scholar for outstanding community service.

Ben Gubler of Karl Maeser Preparatory Academy was selected winner of the Philo T. Farnsworth Governor’s Award.

Gubler, who has a 3.94 cumulative GPA and earned a 36 composite score on the ACT, said he considers computer programming an art.

“It is the creation of something beautiful, functional and elegant. And that’s what draws me to it. The reasons I love coding are the same reasons I love music and literature: fundamentally, I love to create,” he wrote in his Sterling Scholar portfolio.

Gubler is the creator and lead developer of Squirrelly, the fastest lightweight JavaScript template engine in the world, according to his portfolio.

Meanwhile, Lone Peak High School’s Brinley Openshaw was selected winner of the Gail Miller Community Service Award.

Openshaw’s work on three home renovation projects helped her understand that “adversities come in all shapes and sizes.”

“Hearing the stories of refugees from Africa, of a family that lost their father and of numerous youth living in terrible situations trying to make their lives better has made me incomprehensibly grateful for everything I have. By working with neighbors and friends on these homes, I have seen the power that a community can have — that every single person within one plays a small part in making a big difference,” she wrote in her portfolio.

Openshaw has a cumulative GPA of 3.994; earned a 33 composite score on the ACT and has been awarded the Congressional Award Gold Medal for Leadership and Service.

While Sterling Scholar participants are among Utah’s best, brightest and most motivated students, many have rich, personal experiences that have steered them into college majors and career paths.

Take Anabelle Ballard of Woods Cross High School, winner of the Skilled and Technical Sciences category. She aspires to be a physician. At age 16, she became a certified nursing assistant and has worked in memory care for more than a year.

“Although this work is often physically and emotionally challenging, I have been able to gain a greater appreciation for careful, personal patient care. I believe that wholesome health care relies not only on the technical aspects of the field, but also on ensuring personal wellness for each patient,” wrote Ballard, who has a 4.0 GPA, ranks first in her class and earned a 34 composite score on the ACT.

Others students shared how they have not allowed personal adversity to stand in the way of their academic and career goals.

Westlake High School’s Jonathan Bone, winner of the family and consumer sciences category, wrote that from a young age, he was unable to hold a pencil steady, let alone write, due to an unspecified disability. As a child he was told the disability would be a lifelong struggle and likely wouldn’t improve.

“As a child this was pretty devastating for me, I felt that I was different from all the other kids and was incapable of greatness in my future,” Bone wrote in his portfolio.

Bone, who has a cumulative GPA of 3.799, has held leadership positions in the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America chapter and won first place in a culinary competition.

“Today I still have this disability but I am not for one second letting it impair me and my dreams of becoming a chef,” Bone wrote.