There she is… Miss America!

Miss America Nina Davuluri to deliver Asian & Pacific Islander Awareness Month keynote lecture

By Brigid Darragh

Next week Loyola welcomes Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri to the Evergreen campus to deliver the Asian & Pacific Islander Awareness Month keynote lecture.

Davuluri is the first Indian American and the second Asian American to be crowned in the pageant, which was first held in 1921. She is also the first contestant to ever have performed a Bollywood dance on the Miss America stage.

Davuluri’s address will focus on the importance of diversity and inclusion, why she chose “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency” as her platform to compete in Miss America, and her experiences as a woman of color during the pageant and following her crowning.

Photo credit: Bruce V. Boyajian/The Miss America Organization

Photo credit: Bruce V. Boyajian/The Miss America Organization

Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., she moved with her family to St. Joseph, Mich., when she was 10 years old. She attended St. Joseph High School and then went on to study at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is the recipient of several scholastic honors including dean’s list, the Michigan Merit Award, and National Honor Society. She graduated in 2011 from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) with a B.S. in Brain, Behavior and Cognitive Science.

With career ambitions to become a physician, Davuluri plans to continue her education once her duties as Miss America have concluded. She plans to use the $50,000 scholarship award from Miss America toward medical school.

Davuluri had been working on the issues of “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency” and will now use her national platform to raise greater awareness. As part of the campaign, she has launched “Circles of Unity,” a new social media initiative aimed at encouraging constructive and respectful dialogue on issues surrounding diversity.

In addition to her diversity platform, Davuluri is the National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

I had the great pleasure of talking to Miss America in anticipation of her visit to Loyola…

Photo Credit: Miss America Organization

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Your mother is an information technology specialist and your father is an obstetrician/gynecologist; your sister is in medical school in New York.

What is it like coming from a family with a strong technology-medical background? Did you always feel you too would have a career in medicine?

More than a calling, I felt a pressure. Medicine was something that was expected of me. It was one thing I was exposed to constantly in my life (in classes, in coursework, in research)… and so yes, I had chosen medicine as what I wanted to do.

However, entering something like the Miss America competition gave me a sense of validity. It was solely mine, and I loved putting my name on something that was my own.

When did you first want to be Miss America?

I was 22 when I started competing, and that makes me unique because many of the other girls have been competing for years by that time. But I knew that I was going to graduate school, and I also knew that I needed to have a way to pay for it. Miss America is the largest scholarship organization for young women in the world, making $45 million available to young women across the country.

And so I competed for Miss New York twice and was awarded $65,000 in scholarship funds, and I really began to see this opportunity. You have to win a local title first (each state has different local competitions), and I won Miss Syracuse, and then I competed for Miss New York. Once you win your state, you are automatically qualified for Miss America—and nobody passes up the chance to compete in that!

To have the opportunity to be on the Miss America stage is truly an experience it itself. You’re with 52 of the nation’s most beautiful, articulate, intelligent, talented women, and any one of us could have done the job… It’s just a matter of how the cards fall that night.

What does it mean to you to be the first Indian-American and second Asian-American to be crowned Miss America?

Part of the reason I wanted to compete in the pageant is because I wanted to change the image of who Miss America is.

She’s always been branded as “the girl next door,” the attainable role model. And she is. But the girl next door has evolved and changed as America and our culture has changed.

I remember watching Miss America as a little girl, and I wasn’t blond, I didn’t have blue eyes, I didn’t have what many would deem “a normal talent”…

I wanted to reach out to all those girls like I once was and give them a relatable Miss America—that they could relate to Miss America and she looks like them. And so, for me, competing was about reaching out to that young girl and having her say, “I can relate to her, she looks like me, she has characteristics and traits I see in myself.”

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

How did it feel to perform your talent, knowing it was the first time Bollywood had been performed on the Miss America stage?

Performing Bollywood on the national stage meant more to me than anything to me. To bring variety to the talent aspect of the show and to showcase who I am and a part of my culture in this way was really incredible.

I tell people winning Miss America was the “icing on the cake” in comparison to the opportunity to perform something that I love that truly embodies who I am on that stage.

When it came time for me to choose a talent for the competition, there was no question that I was going to do Bollywood dance. It’s who I am. I have been doing it my whole life; I had been classically trained in Indian dance as a child. And I can sing, but I’m not nearly the singer that I am dancer.

Following your crowning, there was backlash with xenophobic and racist comments in social media. How do you respond to these comments, and what is your reaction? What do you say to others about tolerance and open-mindedness towards diversity?

I grew up in Oklahoma from about age four to 10, and when I was 10, we moved to Michigan. My family, my parents, are Hindu, and I grew up in a Hindu household. But when we lived in Oklahoma, I was often mistaken for a Native American.

After winning Miss America, my ethnicity, my religion, my race were again misconstrued.

I want to send a message that regardless of what your background is, we can find a common ground. And if there is no common ground, then we can at the very least and respect each other’s ideology.

What are the pressures you face in this role?

I feel pressure every single day because people are so critical. And if it’s not my race, it’s something else.

The hardest part is to understand that no matter what people say, I have to wake up every morning and do the best job I can. I have to remind myself to just go out and be the best Nina I can be.

You have to be yourself,—that is the most important thing, because you can’t do your best at anything if you’re not doing that first.

What doors have been opened for you as Miss America?

So many doors! The best part of this job is that it’s a year-long career fair, that I am constantly meeting people and speaking to groups and traveling. And you can do a number of things with this title. For example, I’m working with everyone from kindergartners to senators, meeting the president and everyone in between, and every day is so different than the next… Miss America—she’s a business woman, she’s lobbying in schools, she’s a spokesperson, she’s a fashion icon.

Quite a few doors have been opened for me. Now it’s just a matter of which ones I want to walk through.

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Who is the most interesting person you’ve met during your reign?

I was really honored to be invited to the Oval Office to meet President Obama and have a conversation with him—and I think that’s when my parents thought this was a legit job! That was an experience in and of itself. And the fact that he knew my work and what the Miss America organization is about was really incredible.

And Mindy Kaling, I just love her. She’s always been one of my role models… I’ve followed her career since even before The Office. She’s made so many leaps and strides for Asian women and for women in general.

What’s the coolest city you’ve traveled to?

New York City! I know I’m from New York, but it’s home, I always love going there.

What advice would you give to girls growing up today?

To really be yourself. I know that is easier said than done… but it’s important to know who you are, love who you are, and stand up for who you are.

What do you think makes a person beautiful?

Being confident in yourself! And I know that it takes time to find that confidence—as well as a level of maturity—and especially because we live in a world that puts so much pressure on looking a certain way. But that’s what true beauty is, it’s having confidence in your looks and in your character.

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Can you share a secret beauty tip?

To be honest, I have to thank my mom for good genes. They are truly the secret.

Other than that, one tip I can give is to always take your makeup off before you go to bed. I was always bad at that, I had to be constantly reminded…

Now I carry skin makeup wipes in my suitcase, in my purse, and I always have them with me so I have no excuse not to remove my makeup before I go to bed.

Do you have a favorite accessory?

Earrings! Earrings have always been my thing. I’m obsessed with them. They’re my go-to.

What happens when Miss American 2015 is named; will you be able to keep your crown?

I do get to keep my crown! And I always carry it with me to events, but it depends on the event if I wear it.

I will bring it to my lecture at Loyola and put it on for pictures, because people love the crown.

Photo Credit: Miss America Organization

Photo Credit: The Miss America Organization

Davuluri will deliver her lecture on Tuesday, April 8, 2014, at 7 p.m. in McGuire Hall. The event is free and open to the public; tickets are not required but strongly recommended because space is limited. Guests can reserve tickets online at any time or obtain tickets from the Loyola box office beginning today, April 1.

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