By Clint Kimberling
In February, the Starkville chapter of Distinguished Young Women held a local preliminary event of the national scholarship competition at Lee Hall on the campus of Mississippi State University. The event features young women competing in five categories: academic performance, interview, talent, fitness, and self-expression. And Cici Zhang, a junior at Starkville High School, was named the 2017 Distinguished Young Woman of Starkville. Zhang will represent Starkville at the state competition this summer.
Distinguished Young Women of Starkville awarded a total of $6,100 in scholarship money to competition winners this year. Susan Keith, Starkville Program Director, says, “Cici is a very talented, smart young woman and she will represent Starkville very well at the state program. She is very dedicated to doing her best in whatever she does.”
Distinguished Young Women is a national scholarship program for high school girls that promotes and rewards scholarship, leadership, and talent in young women. Beyond the scholarship competition, participants also complete community service projects and promote the DYW outreach program “Be Your Best Self.” The Starkville community outreach project involved working with the Brickfire Community Project where the young women tutored children twice a month. Susan Keith explains, “The Brickfire Community Project is an excellent opportunity for our girls to work with youth in the community. They were able to tutor and teach them about our Be Your Best Self program.”
During the talent portion of the competition, Zhang relied on her 10 years of piano practice. She played a classical remix of River Flows in You by Yirmua. It was a natural choice for her; she says, “Piano has always been a great passion of mine.” And during the interview segment, Zhang said she was caught off-guard by a question about politics and her opinion on specific policies. Despite the tough question, she says, “Overall, I think my answer was sufficient.”
Zhang is excited about state competition this July in Meridian. “I’ve already started connecting with some of the other girls,” she says. To prepare for the Distinguished Young Women competition, Zhang won’t be doing anything much different. Her strategy, she says, is to “Stay the course. Continue to eat healthy, keep my grades up, and reading about current events. All the things that helped me to win.”
Outside of Distinguished Young Women, Cici stays very busy. When I ask about her other extracurricular activities, she takes a deep breath as if to say, “How much time do you have?” Cici is heavily involved in several pursuits, including serving as President of Key Club and Vice President of the mathematics honor society, Mu Alpha Theta. In fact, Cici will work with Key Club to continue her volunteer efforts with Brickfire. And last year, Zhang was a national finalist in National History Day competition and is hoping to return this year.
But the thing she is most passionate about is her involvement with a research project that recently won Best of Fair at the Mississippi Science and Engineering Fair earning her trip to Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Tucson. Her project involved developing a method of converting carbon dioxide to methanol using carbon encapsulated copper nanoparticles. She has a patent pending on the design. Zhang says she is proud not only of the recognition but to develop something that is “taking harmful environmental waste and producing a value added product like methanol.”
Cici is currently undecided about her college plans but is certain she wants to major in Engineering with an emphasis in biomedical studies. Eventually, she intends to become a doctor and has an ultimate goal of bringing efficient health care to developing countries.
Susan Keith has spent 15 years as director of Starkville Distinguished Young Women. She comes back year after year because “it’s wonderful to work with young women who are passionate about doing their best. I like to watch them grow through the program. It’s very rewarding for me. While we only choose one representative, it’s more than just a competition. Learning how to do your best and building friendships and cheering on one another is important than winning.”
Echoing that sentiment, Cico says her favorite thing about Distinguished Young Woman is the friendships. “There were 10 wonderful girls in the program, and I‘ve grown close to each one.”