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This year, 16 of Utah's high school seniors will embark on their journey to college and the challenges of freshman year like any of their peers, but with one crucial difference: they will do so with knowledge that they represent, as Daniels Fund Scholarship winners from Utah, just 0.5% of some 3,000 applicants.

Bill Daniels, a Colorado-based cable television magnate and the man who brought the basketball franchise that would eventually become the Jazz to Utah, had the bulk of his estate donated to the scholarship fund upon death in 2000. Every year since, 250 high school seniors from Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico have been selected from a pool of some 3,000 applicants to receive a four-year scholarship to pursue their college degree.

The amount varies from student to student and from year to year, based on Expected Family Contribution and any other financial aid available. The scholarship will cover any additional costs so students don't have to pay for their education.

"Having the scholarship means something, because when someone says 'I'm an Olympic gold medalist,' it means they worked really hard to get there," said Daniels Fund Scholar Luke Jenkins, 17, from the Utah County Academy of Sciences (UCAS). "Being a Daniels scholar is kind of the same thing in my opinion. It means you've accomplished something."

Applicants are put through a gauntlet of essay questions, a thorough background investigation, including reference letters, and an interview with a community leader in order to determine whether they possess the character, leadership, and service required to be Daniels Fund Scholars and claim part of the roughly $14 million that is distributed among the winners each year.

"We try to do our very best to differentiate and select those students who demonstrate those qualities, not just aspire to them," said Daniels Fund VP of Communications Peter Droege.

Jenkins, who said he has been preparing for college and a career as a dentist since he was 13 years old, paid for his trip to Tijuana, Mexico last year to perform volunteer dental work.

"When I was volunteering, it gave me greatest feeling in the world," he said.

Victoria Au, 17, Daniels Fund Scholar from Itineris Early College High School in West Jordan, became a volunteer at Jordan Valley Hospital after being impressed by the positive impact that the staff there had on her grandmother during a stay for a health emergency.

"Ever since I was little, I always wanted to go to college and get an education and actually make an impact on society, and this scholarship will help me do that," said Au, who plans to study either psychology or sports science at the University of Utah with the ultimate aim of becoming a physician's assistant.

The selection process culminates with an interview between the finalists and a representative from their community who is asked to seriously judge whether they would actually hire the candidate, as opposed to just endorsing their character.

Scholars are required to have a four year graduation plan before in place before they begin college work, must have a job and work 125 hours per academic year, and they are required to maintain a minimum GPA of 2.0 in order to maintain the scholarship, which provides funding for all expenses they can't cover on their own. The fund provides an average of $14,000 per student, per year.

Scholar Matthew Brockbank, 18, from Provo High School, emphasized his satisfaction in getting through what he described as a long, difficult application process in which he was up against thousands of his peers. He intends to use the money to help pay his way through a degree at Brigham Young University and an eventual career as a nuclear engineer.

"There is nothing like being one of the few who are awarded with a great accomplishment or award, and that is definitely what meant the most to me," he said via email.

Austin Harmon, 18, from American Fork High School, was determined not to let finances interfere with the fulfillment of his potential. With or without the scholarship, he said he would have found a way to pay for a medical degree from BYU, but he's grateful to have taken care of it already as a senior in high school.

"Honestly, preparation for this scholarship starts much younger than being a senior in high school," he said via email. "You need to be driven, but also balanced at the same time. Serve your community! Be involved! You will be glad you did."

Twitter: @sltribSouth —

The Daniels Fund

The amount awarded is based on Expected Family Contribution and other aid available.

Students must go through a rigorous interview and essay process.

Students must also prove themselves to be community leaders.

The fund was established by Bill Daniels, a Colorado-based cable television magnate who brought professional basketball to Utah.

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