Meet Miss America 2014. Her name is Nina Davuluri. She came to campus this past Tuesday night to share her story and what she hopes to accomplish during her one-year tour. Nina grew up in a small, conservative town in Oklahoma. There, she dealt with many common stereotypes about her stemming from her Indian heritage. People around her often wondered if she had an arranged marriage lined up or if she worshiped cows. At a very young age, she was confronted by labels that were often not malicious but simply ignorant of her culture. She eventually moved to Michigan and began to compete in pageants.
Miss America is a non-profit organization that has four pillars: style, service, scholarship and success. Nina sees her service, as a business woman, to be one of the most important pillars. The Miss America Organization has also given out over forty-five million dollars in scholarship money, ninety-two thousand of which has gone to Nina. When it came time for college, Nina took a break from competition and studied at Michigan State before transferring to the University of Michigan after one year. While at the University of Michigan, she was exposed to an Indian community that she identified with for the first time. She immersed herself in “Brown Town,” a group a students who shared similar struggles in everyday life. Nina shared a story, however, that reflected on how some of the different college organizations did not always hang out with one another. A friend called her to ask what she was doing on a particular night and she responded that she was hanging out with “Brown Town.” She did not invite the other student to join or ask to meet up later. The other student confronted her about this the following day and Nina was glad she did. It is important to be inclusive to all people. This is what she says drove her to introduce a cultural day for student organizations where they could engage in different communities. It was Nina’s hope to engage students through their senses. She wanted them to see, touch, and feel as others would from different cultures. This is something that drove her to get back into Miss America competitions after college.
In order to compete in the Miss America competition, one must first win at the local and state levels. After college Nina was living in New York and won Miss Syracuse. She then won Miss New York before winning the title of Miss America. The odds were not in her favor to do this, as the previous Miss America winner was also from New York. Before entering competition she had to ask herself two questions: Why do you want to win and what change can you make? Nina honestly believed that in three to five years, Miss America would have to be someone with a diverse background in order to represent an image of what young America is today. For this reason, she set her platform as celebrating diversity through cultural competency, something she had seemingly been working on her entire life. Nina’s talent in the competitions was Bollywood, an Indian dance she shared from her culture. She graduated with a B.S. in Brain, Behavior & Cognitive Science, and will now use her platform to understand patients’ background and beliefs to give them the best healthcare possible. Nina hopes to attend medical school after her one year tour as Miss America.
Nina has faced criticisms as Miss America. She has been called a “terrorist” and told that she “does not look American enough” for the title. Nina, however, has taken this in stride. She knows her job right now is to be Miss America and not Miss India. She presents herself as an academic type, able to relate to people of all backgrounds; people should know better than to be intolerable. The truth is that for every negative comment she hears, she receives much more encouragement and support. She says that this reality is reflective of the demographics of America. It is not easy to change the way people think. Nina believes racism is taught.
Gender roles have also come up during Nina’s time as Miss America. She has, at times, felt objectified. She knows that when she walks into a room all eyes are on her, especially from men. She uses this as an advantage and presents herself as an academic and uses her voice. She has had meetings with people who are considered ‘high-up’ who have joked with her asking her if she can cook. Nina says that you have to welcome all questions openly as a way to respond to any ignorance you may face.
This is why Nina is truly making big changes as Miss America 2014. She has changed the idea of what beautiful is. Miss America no longer has blond hair and blue eyes. Nina explained that lighter skin is considered more beautiful in India, but in America tan is often seen as beautiful. Beauty is subjective. Anyone reading this should simply have confidence in themselves. Have a support system around you that recognizes you for who you are on the inside and how you care for others around you. Miss America no longer looks like Barbie. Miss America now looks like Nina Davuluri. She succeeded despite her race and socioeconomic background, and encourages others that they can do the same no matter what career path they choose.
This is what Nina hopes to accomplish as Miss America. She hopes to help others celebrate diversity through cultural competency and by sharing a little bit of herself with others. She allows us to learn more about her culture, and more about the world. This is a new perspective that Miss America can bring to us in 2014.