TV journalist Diane Sawyer, Emmy-winning actress Karen Gowdy, and Kim Crosby Westenberg, part of the original Broadway cast of "Into the Woods," all have one thing in common: They are winners.
Samantha Vazquez, 18, of Sugar Grove will have a chance to join that elite company while representing Illinois in the 54th Distinguished Young Women National Finals, a three-day competition running through Saturday in Mobile, Ala.
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The Distinguished Young Women is a national scholarship program for high school seniors, offering $142,000 in scholarships. Vazquez said she never thought she would ever be in a scholarship contest like this.
"I think it's a great program. Not many people can say they know someone from each state," Vazquez said, referring to the competition, which has 50 entrants. "It's definitely different from having to write an essay."
The road to nationals started April 10 at the state competition in Bolingbrook where Vazquez bested seven girls and won a $4,500 scholarship.
"I actually didn't tell (my parents) that the winner had to go to Alabama for two weeks, but they're definitely excited and proud that I'm working to finance my own education," said Vazquez, who didn't expect to win the state crown.
Vazquez graduated from Kaneland High School and will attend Marquette University in Milwaukee, studying to become an obstetrician or gynecologist.
"It's been a really great experience and I hope I can convince others to participate in it," Vazquez said of Distinguished Young Women. "It definitely has prepared me more for college and everything that comes next."
While in Alabama the competitors work on community service projects and team-building activities. Vazquez said the group worked with Habitat for Humanity and met some of the Mobile residents.
"It's definitely a lot bigger down here than in Illinois," Vazquez said of the competition. "Everyone (in the community) tries to get involved. ... We actually had an autograph signing and everyone wants to talk to you and get to know you before the show."
The competition starts with preliminary rounds Thursday night and Friday in the fitness, talent and self-expression categories. Contestants are also judged in scholastics and interviews. For the talent portion Vazquez will sing "Your Daddy's Son" from the musical "Ragtime," a song she says highlights her range. Vazquez was the president of the madrigal singers, in concert choir and involved in musical theater at Kaneland.
After the preliminaries, the 50 competitors are whittled to 10 and each earns $3,000. The winner will be announced Saturday night and first place comes with a $40,000 scholarship. The runner-up gets $25,000 and the second runner-up $15,000. Each category also has one winner who receives $1,000.
There has not been an Illinois winner since Northwestern graduate Sara Martin Rosheger in 1990, but Vazquez is excited for the opportunity.
"I am pretty confident in my own abilities but everyone else here is good, too," Vazquez said by phone from Mobile. "My goal is to not worry about the things I can't control and do the best I can."
To keep up with the competition, visit distinguishedyw.org.