The mission statement on Web site of Distinguished Young Women describes the national scholarship program as one that "inspires high school girls to develop their full, individual potential through a fun, transformative experience that culminates in a celebratory showcase of their accomplishments."
Sound fun? Seventeen-year-old Paige Wagner thinks so. A recent graduate of Beyer High School, Paige decided to be a part of Modesto's Junior Miss program during her junior year in 2009. She progressed to California's Junior Miss and claimed that title last August, then competed in the 53rd annual national program, Distinguished Young Women, formerly known as America's Junior Miss.
Paige diligently prepared for the national competition, which took place in June. She attended a preparation camp in North Carolina run by Dee Ann Allen, a past judge and participant. There, she was given information and helpful tips about judging criteria, but was also given the advice to stay focused and not become obsessed with competitive nature of the program. After camp, Paige really got to work by scheduling countless mock interviews with family and friends, practicing her violin regularly for the talent portion of the competition and watching CNN daily to stay updated on current events.
The national competition consisted of five categories, including scholastics, interview, talent, self-expression and fitness. "In this way, the judges are able to find the well-rounded young woman they are looking for to represent motivated girls across the country," Paige said. Every state Junior Miss is judged in these five areas. The interview and scholastic portions take place prior to the actual show, while talent, self-expression and fitness are performed on stage in front of an audience in Mobile, Ala.
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Paige especially loves the fact that scholastics, interview and talent contribute the most to a participant's overall score, showing that Distinguish Young Women is truly a scholarship program as opposed to a pageant.
"They want a girl who values academics and is motivated to really impact the future of our country in a positive way," she said. "Preparing for each category has helped enrich my life so much more, as I have seen that there is always room for improvement, and goals can be met every day."
Paige finished in the top 10 in the national competition, winning $3,000, which brought her total winnings at the local, state and national level to $19,600, said Tracy Walsh, chairwoman of the Modesto program.
Paige said she found the experience invaluable. Not only did she get the opportunity to make friends with young, determined women across the country, she also was greeted with such positive energy from the community upon arriving in Mobile. The Distinguished Young Women staff organized events that allowed the participants to interact with local Girl Scout troops, Habitat for Humanity, and major personalities of the area. Paige also helped kids diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at Camp Grace and bonded with the other participants on the high-rope course and zip line. Paige and her new friends were taken on tours of museums, battle- ships, beaches, camps and war fronts, while also being given time to relax by being surprised with a movie party and even a Mardi Gras-themed prom.
"Through all of these events, we were treated with the utmost respect by everyone around us," Paige said. "We saw firsthand that Distinguished Young Women isn't about competing. It's about being a better you, which comes only by helping to better others."
While she took away innumerable positive memories from her time in Mobile, Paige struggled with being away from home for two straight weeks. She was always on a tight schedule consisting of rehearsing and meeting new people in scorching humidity.
"As the competition drew nearer, it became more real for me, and it was difficult not to question whether or not I was truly ready," she said.
However, Paige received encouragement from the incredible support system consisting of 50 girls who were all going through the same stress.
"Even as I would worry and question myself, I saw how blessed I truly was to be there, because every single time I struggled, there was someone else who felt exactly the same way," she said. "The emotional roller coaster was very personal, but each girl was on one, too, making it easier to enjoy the ride."
Paige encourages her peers to look into becoming a part of their local programs. "There is a Junior Miss sisterhood that won't go away with the name change to Distinguished Young Women. It will only grow stronger."
The intention of the name change from America's Junior Miss is to attract girls who might be turned off by any type of pageant stigma. Paige strongly reinforces the fact that the program is not a pageant.
"It will help you realize your place in the world, provide you with priceless connections and friendships, and give you tools that you need for success in the future," said Paige, whose college expenses have been paid for in full because of the program.
"You have nothing to lose! I can't imagine going through my high school experience without Junior Miss, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to everyone."
Paige's successor as California's Junior Miss, Anisha Mudaliar of San Diego, was named in state finals Sunday in Bakersfield. Representing Modesto in the competition were Megan Carley from Downey High School and Taylor Loudermilk from Beyer High. In a field of 40 contestants, Megan was named first runner-up and won $5,000, and Taylor won in fitness and was awarded $1,000.
Paige was featured throughout the program; she performed on violin and gave a farewell speech.
"There will be many more performing and speaking opportunities, in which I will gladly share the message of what Distinguished Young Women can do for young girls across the nation," she said prior to the weekend finals.
Paige plans to continue her education at Brigham Young University and major in violin performance.
To learn more or to get involved, visit www.ajm.org.
Emily Kay Shrader is a graduate of Enochs High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.