DRAPER — Peter Rosen nervously ran his fingers up and down the fingerboard of his cello in the quiet minutes prior to his interview as a finalist for the Sterling Scholar Awards.
The 18-year-old from Murray High School said his experience in serving the community and his love for the music of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, not to mention an ACT score of 36, were what helped him advance in the program that recognizes high school seniors for their academic excellence, leadership and community involvement.
One experience that stands out in Rosen's memory is working with elementary students at a summer writing camp.
"It was a bit nerdy, but I'm a bit of a nerd myself," he said. "I found that I just loved working with kids. I loved encouraging them to do their best and become better at writing."
Rosen was among the 210 Sterling Scholar finalists, narrowed from almost 1,000 students, who gathered Wednesday at Corner Canyon High School in Draper to be judged in one of 14 categories, including musical performance, math, social science and others.
Each category will produce one winner who will receive a $2,000 scholarship. Among the 14 winners, one student will be chosen for the General Sterling Scholar Award and an additional $2,000. Twenty-eight runners-up will receive $700 scholarships. Other awards will also be given.
The program, which has been encouraging educational excellence for the past 53 years, is sponsored by the Deseret News and KSL.
Sterling Scholar director Linda Stokes says the program brings out the best in youth across the Wasatch Front and in other regions of Utah.
"These kids are incredible at what they do," she said. "They have created their own opportunities to serve, and they deserve to be recognized. That's what Sterling Scholars is all about."
West High School student and Sterling Scholar finalist Lisa Dean, 16, said her participation in the program has taught her to be herself while performing as a flautist.
"One of the judges gave me the advice that I should feel like a performer and be willing to present myself," she said. "That was really important because sometimes on stage you just want to stay inside of yourself and be safe."
J.D. Ashby, an attorney from Murray, said being a social sciences judge for the competition has given him unique insight into the youths' perspective on societal involvement.
"The thing I thought was most interesting in talking to these kids was seeing how much they've developed their own world view, their own concept of how they fit into society at large," he said. "To hear them already have that kind of grasp of their own citizenship was really interesting."
Sterling Scholar judges will decide Wednesday who the winners will be. An awards ceremony that is open to the public will be held on March 12 at Cottonwood High School at 7 p.m.