For many who were keeping track of Grand County High School’s Sterling Scholar candidates at the program’s awards ceremony last week, one name was particularly meaningful when it was announced as winner.
As a group of educators, parents and school district officials sat together on March 21, unable to attend the Sterling Scholar ceremony because of a meeting of the Grand County School Board of Education held the same night, they were kept apprised of Grand County students’ showing in the Sterling Scholar presentation via live-stream video feed that was monitored by teacher Hank Postma. Any time a Grand County student was announced as a winner or runner-up, Postma reported it to those at the meeting.
While there were smiles and quiet “yays” for all six of Grand County’s Sterling Scholar finalists, the group had a particularly different reaction for one of them. When Postma announced that Trinity Yazzie had been named the Sterling Scholar in Art, the room broke into applause and coos of surprise — the kind of almost reverent “ohs” and “ahs” that indicate something profound has happened.
There were almost tears.
“It just gives you goose bumps,” Mary Marable, vice principal at GCHS said.
Yazzie is known throughout the district for the art she’s been producing since she was a little girl.
“Her art is all over [Helen M. Knight Elementary School],” said that school’s principal, Taryn Kay. And Grand County Middle School Principal Melinda Snow said she had one of Yazzie’s pieces hanging in her office.
But Yazzie was an unexpected winner in the Sterling Scholar program, not being the “traditional” candidate and having to overcome some things to get there. Yazzie had to rise above academic expectations and, being of Navajo heritage and culture, has had to break through the inherited barriers sometimes faced by Native Americans in Anglo-centric society.
When Yazzie heard her own name announced as Sterling Scholar winner, “It felt so surreal to me in the moment,” she said. “When I took a breath, that’s when everything came through. Excitement, joy, happiness, and awe were the overwhelming emotions that took over my whole being. I was just very happy to know that my hard work has paid off. All of those nights staying up late, all those hours of painting, and even the blisters that formed on my hands from holding a pencil or paintbrush, were worth it.”
Yazzie wasn’t even supposed to be the school’s Sterling Scholar nominee in the first place. Her art teacher, Christa Green, explains that the school’s program committee had originally selected another student but, earlier this school year, that person backed out.
Yazzie took the initiative of asking advisors, “Could I step up and be Sterling Scholar?”
Some questioned her viability as a nominee because, as she herself admits, she had “slightly below average grades” — not the kind that make one a clear Sterling Scholar contender.
“We didn’t think she would be Sterling Scholar eligible,” Green said. But, “Something clicked in her: ‘I’m going to do this … I’m going to work hard. I’m going to study. I’m going to prove to you guys that I can do this.’”
The same kind of dedication to art that gave her blisters on her fingers, she applied to academics.
“This is something that I strived for in the past few months because I wanted this ... to achieve more than my mother and father ever did,” Yazzie said. “I was never the best at math or the fastest runner in P.E., but I had dreams and ambitions. My family told me that I could do anything, but I had to work for it. So I studied and got help from tutors and worked alongside my teachers to reach my goal.”
She improved her grades; she bumped up her ACT score by three points. Most Sterling Scholar candidates prepare throughout their high school career, planning for it with academic success and excelling in their chosen area. Some begin putting their nomination portfolios together as early as their junior year. Getting a late start and, despite shortcomings, Yazzie did in two or three months what others take two or three years to do.
“Sterling Scholar means that I can show others what I’m capable of and that I’m good as anyone else. It means that I will be given a chance to go to college, study abroad to see the world, have a life of my own,” she said.
While her academic qualifications were debatable, her artistic ones never were. Green said that when Yazzie became the Sterling Scholar nominee, Green began to ask her in-depth questions about art.
“She had such thoughtful and meaningful answers, you could tell she was passionate about her artwork,” Green said.
“Art resonates with me because it’s a form of communication,” Yazzie said. “It expresses itself in unexplained ways to not just me but to others as well. Art is humanity’s way of showing you that you are not alone. Immersing yourself in art is immersing yourself in life. And through the practice of art, we understand ourselves better. As an artist, I have the power to create worlds and breathe life into characters.”
Green said Yazzie’s dedication to art has made her more compassionate, more thoughtful and, though people generally develop maturity during teenage years, Yazzie “shows a maturity as an artist and as a person” that is perhaps above average.
Yazzie plans to attend the University of Utah in the fall, pursuing studies and a career in art. She will be the first in her family’s history to go to college, breaking out of the social and economic limitations too often associated — fairly or not, and real or perceived — with life as a Native American.
“It has been difficult,” she said. “I used to live on the reservation, but I still go to visit very often. The town I lived in was Pinon, Ariz. It basically is a small town in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t very many opportunities there for me, so my parents decided to move here to Moab to give me a better education and things they never had.”
Yazzie might be rising above certain stigmas, but she is hardly leaving her Navajo heritage behind. She is deeply connected to Native American culture. “My heritage is something I take deep pride in,” she said. “It’s what defines us and tells us where we come from.”
Green said she’s had many Native American students who do well in art, then have just gone back to the reservation to make pottery or jewelry to sell. She said Yazzie has higher aspirations while at the same maintaining that connection to culture and tradition.
“She’s following her dreams and passions, making them bigger,” Green said, while at the same time “She’s not afraid to go in and show herself and what she grew up with. She’s willing to better herself and carry on her traditions.”
Yazzie doesn’t worry about losing touch even as she moves ahead, especially as the enormous life change of going to university looms. She said her family wouldn’t have to worry about that, either.
“Moving to another place would make no difference for me,” she said. “I still remember the words of my mother clearly: ‘You could go anywhere in this world, but you must not forget where your roots lie.’ When I look back on everything now, I don’t think I could forget anything. The songs, stories, teachings and prayers are what shaped me into who I am today. So I believe my parents won’t have to worry, because I know the road back home.”
Three from Grand County are regional Sterling Scholars
Three Grand County High School seniors became Sterling Scholars of Southeastern Utah when the highly respected awards were presented last week.
Trinity Yazzie, Grace Osusky and Tyler Moreau were announced as winners at the Sterling Scholars award ceremony on Wednesday, March 21 in Price. Three other GCHS seniors received runner-up awards: Abby Mason, Aidan Guzman-Newton and Ryan Lewis.
They were among 66 students in the southeast Utah region who were Sterling Scholar candidates from their respective schools.
“These young people have prepared so well, high intensity and long duration for the honors they have,” said Dr. Gary Straquadine, vice chancellor of USU-Eastern, at the beginning of the awards presentation. “Sterling Scholars are the tri-athletes,” he said, “of the academic community,” as they must excel in the three areas of scholarship, leadership and service.”
Award recipients demonstrate those values in general, as well as their mastery of a single academic area — such as mathematics, English, technical education and science — in portfolios of their achievements. They also have in-person interviews with Sterling Scholar program judges and, in categories such as music or drama, will have to perform for those judges as well.
The word “Sterling,” Straquadine said, “itself indicates preciousness, importance and value.”
Grand County’s three winners did so in categories of Art (Yazzie), Forensics and Speech (Osusky) and Social Science (Moreau). Runners-up Mason, Guzman-Newton and Lewis received their awards in Dance, English and Science, respectively.
Prior to each winner’s names being announced, a brief citation of that person’s achievements was read. According to those citations, the high school is likely to have co-valedictorians, as Moreau and Osusky both have 4.0 GPAs and are currently ranked No. 1 in their senior class.
Moreau was a delegate to the Utah State Democratic Party by the time he was 16 years old. He interned for a voter-activation program known as the Rural Utah Project, and also interned for the Grand County Council. He is a public-lands advocate and activist, has competed on varsity mountain biking, swimming and tennis teams, and has been president of the school’s National Honor Society chapter.
Osusky, too, has been president of her National Honor Society chapter. She has been actively involved on the school’s speech and debate team all four years, two of those as the team’s captain. This year, she was the Utah 3A state champion in foreign extemporaneous speaking. She has a passion for debate, but also plays the viola, violin and guitar at nursing homes, churches, cancer walks and other fundraisers. She has participated in the Science Olympiad, the Quiz Bowl and the Future Business Leaders of America. She has served as junior class president and senior class vice-president.
Yazzie was first exposed to art as a very young girl at her grandfather’s knee. Her Navajo culture believes artistic talent is a gift to be honored and nurtured, and she has spent many hours, classes, projects and a lot of passion to respect those beliefs and develop her gift. She loves art for its ability to move others, and because it is an expression of one’s spirit. She is actively involved with the school’s Native American club and supports many non-profits in town.
The Sterling Scholar program’s state director, Jennifer Michaelson, congratulated the 66 students on the stage with her at the presentation. “Leave tonight with no regrets,” she said. “Continue to dream and reach for your highest goals, never become complacent, always serve others, be a high performer in all areas of your life, and you will find happiness.”