Vivian Utti is quite familiar with the concept and application of paying it forward. The proof is in her dedication to serving her fellow students at Elmont Memorial High School and those in her surrounding community of Valley Stream.
Utti, 17, logged more than 100 hours of community service this year as a Key Club member doing food drives around Elmont, volunteered to work in soup kitchens with the Leo Club of Valley Stream -- a youth extension of the service organization Lions Club, and tutored students in math and SAT prep.
She is editor-in-chief of the school paper, The Elmont Phoenix, and as president of the Future Business Leaders of America, she helped her team secure second place in business presentation at a state competition.
Though Utti is a member of the National Honor Society, she said high school is about more than earning good grades.
"If you don't do the volunteering, you kind of miss out on the person you can even touch," she said. "It really does give you a sense of yourself."
That self-awareness led Utti last year to the Brave New Life Project sponsored by shoe manufacturer Keds. She won an $800 "Change your community, change your life" grant, which she used to purchase SAT preparatory books so she could tutor 10 juniors who weren't able to afford classes up to four times per week from January to May.
"I feel like kids think that if they can't afford the classes that they're just not going to do well," Utti said. "They're just despondent."
The students were grateful and the sessions improved several of their scores, she said. "I really did help to make a difference. It was amazing."
School counselor Sanju Liclican said Utti's determination and vision prove "she's going to be somebody."
"She's very soft-spoken; you would think she's very shy, but she has just got this commanding presence about her," Liclican said. "The kids just look at her and listen."
That was true when Utti took the reins at Sewanhaka Central High School District's college fair, delegating students to help dozens of college representatives, students and parents navigate the event. "It was like a tightly run ship. I was just so inspired by watching her," Liclican said.
Utti will attend New York University in the fall, where she earned a College of Arts and Science scholarship, and will study computer science and neuroscience. She plans to become a pediatric neurosurgeon. It's a field Utti said she was drawn to given the circumstances of her own birth. She and her twin sister, Shirley, were born 21/2 months premature, and doctors thought the pair wouldn't develop normally.
Utti credits her family with motivating her -- particularly her mother, who earned master's and bachelor's degrees in nursing after emigrating from Nigeria in the mid-1990s.
Roseline Utti, an assistant director of nursing at Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica, envisions a bright future for her daughter. "I'm very, very proud of her . . . I know she's going to reach good heights."