Sitting at his brother's high school graduation, eighth-grader Ben Mizukawa decided he was going to be his class valedictorian--not because of recognition or scholarships, and especially not because of a particular interest in academics. Ben wanted to be valedictorian because the valedictorian got to speak.
Having been in gifted and talented programs since elementary school, Ben had the ability to achieve his goal. And in 1993, he stood as valedictorian at Oxon Hill High School, located outside Washington, D.C., and told 9,000 students, family, and friends--people from all cultural and economic backgrounds--to be nice. Those 9,000 answered back with a standing ovation.
"That speech was probably one of the best moments in my life," Ben says. "It was just really neat to see that there were still that many people who were confirming a message to be nice."
Achieving his goal also helped him earn another honor: BYU's Ezra Taft Benson Scholarship, a four-year award named for the LDS Church president at the time it is given. During his freshman year at BYU, Ben hosted a group of high school seniors who were finalists for the following year's Benson scholarships. It was in that group of five finalists that he met Jenny Rebecca Jensen.
She, too, was a valedictorian, but perhaps with more traditional motivations. Both her parents are educators, and they encourage academic excellence in their home. Jenny Rebecca participated in gifted and talented programs throughout elementary and junior high school in Greensboro, N.C. When she reached high school she divided her time between two local schools to participate in the best combination of curriculum. Knowing her family's financial limitations, she focused on school work in hopes of earning scholarships. As a result she also spoke at graduation and received a Benson scholarship at BYU.
The rest of their story is typical: They crossed paths again after Ben's mission. They dated and were married. But Ben credits meeting his wife directly to the Benson scholarship.
Now they are only semesters away from finishing at BYU. Ben will graduate next August in anthropology. Jenny Rebecca finishes in December with a secondary education degree, emphasizing humanities. They both are grateful for what they consider blessings brought by their scholarships and education.
"My education has made a difference in me. It's made me a better person, and I care about the things that I've learned," Jenny Rebecca says. "I'm not going to leave college and stop caring about learning. The scholarship was a positive investment in me in that respect--and a very permanent one."
Ben adds, "Because of my scholarship, I think I expect a certain quality of work and a certain character from myself now. And no matter how unworthy I felt receiving the scholarship at the time, I realize that I have the rest of my life to make myself worthy of it--and I think that's something to work for."