The Time of Their Lives

Meet five diverse freshmen embarking on academic careers at the University of Utah.

~ Once again, the days are becoming shorter. Nights bear the cooler edge of approaching autumn. The sun-baked mountains are a breath away from donning fall colors. And nearly 29,000 students have just arrived on the University of Utah’s scenic campus to begin a new academic year. For 2,600 of these students, it will be for the very first time—as freshmen.

The first day of their freshman year will mean something different for every one of these students. Anxiety, excitement, pressure, freedom, curiosity, dread, ambition, hesitation…. Looking for a snapshot of the entire spectrum of human emotion? You’ll find it here on the first day of class.

But where will that first day lead? Will those freshmen’s dreams ultimately be achieved? Exceeded? Transformed? Deferred?

We asked five of this year’s incoming freshmen to share their University of Utah journey with us. Stephanie, John, Destanae, Sean, and Lauren—representing the wide range of students at the U—welcome us into their worlds, giving us a glimpse of what it means to be today’s University of Utah student, from freshman to (hopefully) graduate, and maybe even beyond. Despite their vastly different backgrounds, academic interests, family situations, and goals, these five students represent some of the best their class has to offer. And they share one thing in common: They are each embarking on an adventure into their own future.

But it all starts with that very first day. So let’s meet our five freshmen and give them a hearty Ute welcome to the U of U campus.

Destanae’s Destiny

Shotput and discus thrower Destanae Howerton-Davis has it all mapped out: the field she wants to study (exercise and sport science), the career she wants to follow (pediatric physical therapy), the siblings she wants to help, the family she someday wants to rear. As a student at Southeast Career Technical Academy, a magnet high school in Las Vegas, Destanae set her future in motion by majoring in health occupations, focusing on nursing assistance. “I could get certified as a nursing assistant right now if I wanted to,” she says of her specialized high school education.

All that was missing was the location for her next phase of education. Her parents attended UNLV (her father on a basketball scholarship), but she wasn’t interested in following in their footsteps quite that closely. “I wanted to go away,” she explains. After five college visits to narrow her choices, she chose the University of Utah. “When I saw the campus,” she says, “I fell in love with it. It was all green, and there were trees! And I loved the track team—the girls were really nice.” To top it off, Utah seemed like a good choice for her long-term future, too: “After college, I could establish a career and a family and live here. Utah seems like a great place to raise a family and have a nice job.”

Career and family seem equally important to this energetic and enthusiastic freshman. With three younger siblings, she sees herself as blazing the trail, showing them that if she can strike out on her own and forge a dynamic career, so can they. She’s looking forward to Skyping (making voice and/or video calls over the Internet using special software) and texting them regularly as she settles into her new life of school and track. But what she’s most excited about is… well, just about everything. “It’s a whole new world. I get to become my own person, experience life by myself, and really get to know myself.”

Stephanie’s Opportunities

“My mom and dad worked really hard for me to have the life they never had,” says Kearns High School graduate Stephanie Cardenas. As immigrants from Mexico living in California, her parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. When Stephanie was very young, her family moved to Utah, where her parents strongly encouraged her love of school. “My mom said, ‘I’d rather you focus on your studies and I’ll worry about working,’ ” Stephanie recalls.

Her parents’ hard work is paying off. In high school, the vibrant, self-proclaimed “history nerd” became involved in student government. That experience ignited her passion for political science, law, and ethnic studies. After exploring other schools, Stephanie decided that the University of Utah offers what she’s looking for. The number of diversity groups on campus and the ethnic studies programs especially appeal to her. “My high school had a lot of diversity. I want my college to be that way, too,” she says.

Stephanie is making the most of programs that the U provides to help high school seniors transition to college life. During U-Night, she stayed overnight in the residence halls. At Preview Day, she learned more about the U’s programs and services. She was one of 15 students selected for Jump Start 2010, a summer live-on-campus program for low-income or “first-generation” students that includes three courses (eight credit hours’ worth) on essential math, writing, and study skills. And this fall, she joined the pre-law LEAP program, a three-year venture that encourages a learning community by allowing students and professors to remain together through multiple semesters.

As the first in her immediate family to attend college, Stephanie is taking her education seriously. Although she hopes to get involved in student council at some point, she wants to start out focusing solely on her coursework, adding activities as she learns to balance the rigorous demands of her studies. “College is an opportunity, a privilege given to me,” she says. “I need to take advantage of it.”

Sean’s Pathway

On September 5, ShaoHao Yin, who goes by “Sean” now that he’s in the U.S., will turn 18. At some point during the day, Sean and his parents will negotiate the 14 time zones between Salt Lake City and Beijing and connect, as they frequently do, via Windows Messenger so that they can send him birthday wishes and he can tell them about his first two weeks at the U.

Sean is one of 39 Chinese freshmen enrolled in the University of Utah this year, thanks to the US-Sino Pathway Program (USPP). Designed by a consortium of top American universities to attract promising young Chinese scholars, the program offers a year of courses in China that apply toward a bachelor’s degree, plus English and American Studies instruction and guaranteed admission to one of four partner universities, including the University of Utah.

Sean, who plans to pursue a computer engineering major, chose the U of U for its reputation in that field, as well as its size and scenic beauty. “The mountains—I can’t wait to climb them,” he says enthusiastically.

The USPP’s final preparatory step is a summer bridge program in Boston. Housed in a dorm with other Pathway students, Sean spent this summer there getting used to American student life. Communication has been his biggest adjustment. “You have to think about [what you want to say] and translate it into English. It is even hard to communicate when I get some food from the dining hall,” he says, laughing.

But he’s learning quickly and looking forward to all that the U offers, from badminton (“It’s a good way to get friends, and it’s a good sport”) to the University’s museums—especially the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

While other freshmen are learning their way around campus, Sean will be continuing to learn his way around a new culture and the American way of life, too. But he is undaunted. He dreams of building a career in computer engineering and establishing his own company in China that will do business with the U.S.

For Sean, the U of U represents a gateway to the cultural and business aspects of his future. He’s excited about “the opportunity, of course. It’s important for me to study in a good environment,” he says. “I think it’s wonderful.”

John’s Journey

Listen closely at the next Ute football game. You’ll hear him, there in the stadium’s MUSS section with other rabid student fans, belting out the Utah fight song. And that’s only one of the diverse U of U experiences John Peterson is looking forward to.

At Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, John swam, played water polo, and was a student body officer. But the high school experience he’s most proud of is the Service Learning Scholar program, which required 170 hours of community service. His hours included an individual project leading a food drive, and an internship at Shriners Hospital. “After I volunteered at Shriners Hospital,” he says, “I realized that this is something I could really enjoy, and it gave me ideas of where to go in medicine.”

As a recipient of an Eccles Distinguished Scholar Award—the U’s most prestigious scholarship for freshmen—John is enrolled in the Honors College and, through the affiliated Early Assurance Program (EAP), is guaranteed admission to one of the U’s graduate programs (learn more about the EAP in the introduction to Lauren, following). “I chose the University of Utah because I felt like it was stronger in the things I was interested in doing, and it has an excellent medical school,” he says. But rather than majoring in chemistry or biology like many pre-med students, John is following advice from a U of U medical professor. “He said to choose a major that we would enjoy doing or something that’s more diverse. So I’m considering political science.”

Combining political science with a medical degree could lead to remarkable possibilities for the future, and that suits John and his wide-ranging interests just fine. As for his immediate educational goals, he’s spending his freshman year living at Sage Point, the on-campus living-learning center, with other Honors students, then will go on a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he returns to the U, he’ll pick up where he left off (and his scholarship will still be waiting for him). He thinks he’d enjoy a Hinckley Institute internship at the state capitol or in Washington, D.C. And because he wants to see more of the world, he’s intrigued by study abroad programs such as one that sends U students to Uganda on a public health service mission. He believes a program like that would give him valuable experience. “I’d learn more about medicine while serving people in need.”

Lauren’s Opening Doors

This summer, while other teens from Omaha were working at fast food joints, Lauren Keller signed up for an EMT course, adding practical experience to her considerable academic strengths and interest in medical professions.

The well-rounded and high-achieving daughter of a University of Utah alum, Lauren has been accepted into the U’s Early Assurance Program (EAP) in the Honors College. The EAP guarantees select freshmen admission into one of the U’s graduate programs after they successfully complete a bachelor’s degree. What sets this program apart from others in the country is that students have two years to decide on a major and graduate program, encouraging them to explore a variety of options before locking into one.

Lauren is confident that her future will involve her affinity for math and science. “I am considering bioengineering at the U,” she explains. “I have a sister who is missing part of her X chromosome and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and Turner syndrome. I feel that by studying bioengineering I could be a helping hand in the development of technologies that can truly change a person’s life. The opportunities are endless, and by pursuing this particular major, it will keep many doors open for the future, no matter what I end up doing.”

The transition from Nebraska to Utah will be eased for Lauren by the nearby presence of two of her five siblings. “It’s nice that I have an older sister who lives just down the street from the University while she attends [the U’s] pharmacy school,” says Lauren. “Also, my twin sister is heading off to BYU, so we should be able to get together every once in a while.”

Lauren is excited about living in the dorms with other EAP students. “I am most looking forward to new experiences and new people,” she says. “Becoming involved at the U will help open doors to a wide-open future.”

—Kelley J.P. Lindberg BS’84, a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah, is a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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To read personal blog entries by these students, CLICK HERE.

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