The first to stand, take a photo and receive a certificate from Superintendent Dr. Ember Conley was junior Abelardo "R.B." Vasquez. He attended the Latinos in Action (LIA) state conference on Tuesday, March 11, where he placed first in the writing competition.
Vasquez and three other students' essays were chosen out of about 1,000 entries. He wrote his essay on the topic of legacy, and he said he could think of no other person whose legacy to honor than his mother's. He said she is his superhero and in his essay compared her to Batman, Superman and Spiderman.
"She didn't want to leave her family and come to the U.S., but she did for me. She wants to go back, but she stays for me," he said. "Sometimes she's tired and doesn't want to go into work, but she does so she can put me through school first."
Vasquez said he will be the first in his family to graduate from high school and college and hopes his younger brother in sixth grade at Ecker Hill Middle School will follow in his footsteps.
He plans to attend Utah State University and major in education, a desire he attributes to his experience in LIA. Students in the class go to McPolin Elementary School to help children with their homework, and Vasquez said he enjoys doing that as well as being a role model for them.
"Being in LIA has helped me by putting pressure on me to continue to do well in school, because you have to have a GPA of at least 2.5 to stay in the class," he said. "I like being in LIA, so it keeps me working hard. Right now I have a great GPA of 3.7 for the third quarter, and I'm going to end it like that."
Fellow LIA member Rebeca Gonzalez is one of three presidents of the class and a senior at the high school. According to Gonzalez, LIA helped her to receive the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award Scholarship from the University of Utah.
LIA advisor Anna Williams and the high school's scholarship advisor Nancy Michalko approached Gonzalez just two weeks before her foreign exchange trip to France and told her they had heard about a scholarship that she was a prime candidate to receive.
"They told me I qualified and perfectly met the expectations for it, so I stayed late at school that day to get everything done and turn in the application," she said. "Two or three days before I left to France, I was surprised by clapping when I walked into my LIA class and they read the letter telling me I had gotten the scholarship."
Gonzalez credits receiving the scholarship to having taken a leadership class, being one of three presidents of the high school's LIA, volunteering throughout the community and taking on both school and work.
She has volunteered at the People's Health Clinic, McPolin's after-school program, translating parent-teacher conferences and the recycling center, and she works part-time at Osh Kosh at the Tanger Outlet. She has also participated in the Utah Valley University summer Bridge program taking college courses for two years.
The money she was awarded with the scholarship will go toward tuition and other expenses at the University of Utah where she was accepted for admission in the fall.
Zachary Laufer and Eleanor Johnston, two of Gonzalez's classmates, were recognized for being candidates for the U.S. Presidential Scholars Program.
The program was started in 1964 by the U.S. Department of Education in an effort to recognize top scholars in the U.S. Each year, out of approximately 3,000 candidates from across the country, up to 141 students are named Presidential Scholars.
Laufer and Johnston were nominated due in large part to their high ACT test scores. Johnston scored a 35 while Laufer scored a perfect 36.
They recently submitted their applications but have not heard back yet. Laufer and Johnston humbly said they do not expect to be accepted, but if they are, they are excited to go to Washington.
"For me, the experience would be more rewarding than the actual award," Laufer said. "You get to go to Washington, D.C., and meet the President of the U.S., and you get to take a teacher with you that you feel most influenced you."
Laufer said his teacher of choice would be James Fleming, a social studies teacher, not for what he has taught him in the subject but for teaching him to form his own opinions and be outspoken about them.
Johnston said she would take Janice Jones, because she has been her teacher for three years. She has enjoyed her as a teacher and a mentor and believes she is an amazing person.
Vasquez and Gonzalez also wanted to thank Melanie Moffett and Williams for their motivation and support. "Everyone asks how I became such a good student after having gotten in trouble all the time in eighth- and ninth-grade, and I always say it's because I'm scared of Ms. Williams," Vasquez said, laughing.
While all four students have been recognized for different achievements, they all attribute their accomplishments to the Park City School District's challenging curriculum and motivational teachers.
"In classes like Advanced Placement (AP) chemistry or physics, they challenge you to problem-solve rather than simply memorize information, which specifically helped with [the ACT and the SAT]," Laufer said. "If we didn't know something, they provided us the tools to figure out the problems for ourselves without knowing it explicitly before we tested."
Laufer is waiting to hear back from Duke University, the University of Southern California, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Michigan, and he wants to study biomedical engineering or medical research. Johnston has been accepted to Williams College and will be studying liberal arts.