Three Sun Devil women will be competing for the title of Miss Arizona in June; the experiences and impact of joining the Miss America Organization have changed their lives in more ways than one.
Kaitlin Vortherms, Alex Taylor and Christina Tetreault have used the Miss America Organization to promote platforms ranging from STEM education to childhood disease to suicide prevention.
With the upcoming Miss Arizona pageant, all are vying for the crown but the experience so far, has been the reward.
Vortherms, an engineering graduate student, grew up in the West Valley and was passionate about band and architecture. However, before coming to ASU for her undergraduate degree, she decided she wanted to study engineering.
Becoming Miss Phoenix was the farthest thing from her mind.
An introvert by nature, Vortherms said she would sometimes rather hide in the corner than be out in the crowd, but she realized that she wanted to make a difference in the world.
“Engineering has been fantastic in a lot of ways, but I haven’t learned how to present myself or to communicate publicly or effectively with people, which is something the Miss America Organization has really done a good job helping me with,” she said. “Without being able to stand in front of people and share my passions and share my dreams with them, I wasn’t ever going to be able to do that.”
Before deciding to compete in the Miss Phoenix pageant, Vortherms said she was pretty skeptical of pageants and was worried about the stereotypes associated with them.
“I was really worried that pageants really did just represent women in this beauty over brains kind of way,” she said. “The stereotypes are there for a reason, but what I realized is that participating in the pageants, all of the stereotypes were broken.”
What is seen on television during pageants is just a small part of what the women participate in throughout the year and the volunteer work and connecting with the community is the real prize, Vortherms said.
“Despite whether I win the crown of Miss Arizona, it doesn’t really matter, because it’s going to be the growth of relationships and the opportunity to connect with the community as Miss Phoenix and talk about my personal platform, that is the prize legitimately,” she said.
Vortherms's platform as Miss Phoenix is the reform of STEM education to include social and emotional intelligence.
“My research and platform are very similar,” she said. “My research, however, is focused on the integration of empathy into engineering education and industry. The empathy piece is key.”
The goals of Vortherms's platform include encouraging young women and men, but especially women, to pursue STEM careers and to not get discouraged early on, she said.
“Also, tied closely with my research is this reform of STEM education to include social and emotional intelligence in the sense that engineering education is very technical in nature and it has to be in order for us to go on and build robust systems and infrastructures that work properly, but what our education doesn’t do is remind us why we signed up for it in the first place,” Vortherms said.
The world of pageantry has opened Vortherms up for new experiences, and she said she would encourage any young woman to get involved with the Miss America organization.
“Just give it a try and do your best not to pass judgment originally,” she said. “In pageantry, if you’re a first-timer especially, you’re going to get something out of it and I would say just try it and then draw your conclusions after you’ve done that. It has been a lot of fun and that is something I didn’t expect getting into it.”
Alex Taylor, a biomedical engineering junior, was looking for a different type of leadership experience when her sorority adviser encouraged her to get involved with the Miss America pageant program.
After learning the Miss America Organization is a scholarship-based program instead of a typical beauty pageant, Taylor said she decided she would give it a shot.
“I did it as something to push myself,” Taylor said. “I’m similar to Kaitlin in that I have very introverted tendencies when it comes to things, and it was more for myself to grow in my self confidence and to grow as a young woman and through this experience it is something I never would have thought in a million years I would have got out of it what I have, in such a short amount of time.”
Taylor’s platform is advocating for childhood disease awareness, and she said she is looking into a few different avenues to get her platform out into the community.
“I’m looking into a couple different nonprofit organizations and local charities, and I’m looking into juvenile diabetes research,” she said. “Since I’m a biomedical engineering student the health care industry is something that is very important to me and seeing my efforts this year go towards an organization or company that would benefit that is kind of what i’m looking for.”
Taylor said some of the highlights of being crowned Miss Scottsdale have been the relationships she has been able to grow during her reign.
“I’m an engineering student at ASU like Kaitlin and it has opened up a whole new world of people who have different interests than me at school,” she said. “I’ve met a lot of people in business and people involved in philanthropic work so I would say for me, so far, the networking I’ve been able to experience with this, I don’t know how I would have had this chance without it.”
Taylor said being involved in the Miss America organization as an undergraduate has helped her emerge as a leader amongst her peers.
“I know people kind of look up to me and think, ‘Wow, that girl is doing something that is not something the typical engineer would do,’” she said. “I feel it breaks stereotypes and boundaries, and it doesn’t matter what else you do if you do something you are passionate about you can be very successful in whatever area it is.”
Miss Maricopa County
Tetreault, an ASU alumna, never paid much attention to pageants until a chance encounter with Miss Arizona 2012 and a car accident derailed her career plans in 2013.
Tetreault said she knew after high school that she wanted to study journalism, a goal that led her to expand her horizons and go on to win Miss Maricopa County 2015.
“While I was at ASU, I ironically interviewed one of the former Miss Arizonas," she said. "She was Miss Arizona 2012 at the time, and her name was Piper Stoeckel. ... When I interviewed her I had never done anything in the realm of pageants before, and I didn’t really think much of them before interviewing her.”
After getting into a car accident after graduation, Tetreault had to undergo extensive physical therapy, which made her change her plans to go out of state to work in a small market as a journalist. This freak accident would keep Tetreault in the Valley and set her on the path to the Miss America organization, she said.
“The topic of suicide came up multiple times right after I graduated,” Tetreault said. “Three alumni of my high school actually died by suicide within three months of me graduating. It hit all of us very hard and the city of Chandler like a brick.”
The deaths of former classmates and the impact on her friends and community led Tetreault to take action.
“I saw this problem in my community, and it got me in a big funk for a while,” she said. “I really wanted to be an advocate for suicide awareness, mental health awareness and prevention because this is such a huge topic in our society, but no one ever talks about it until someone dies, and ultimately, that is what we want to stop.”
While thinking about how to put her passion for this problem into affect she happened to be watching the Miss America one night and her journey into the Miss America Organization began, she said.
After doing some research, Tetreault said she got hooked on the idea of competing for Miss Maricopa County and will compete for Miss Arizona in June.
“I’ve always described it as an odd series of events, but I felt like for me it was just God and the world opening my eyes to show me these issues and slowly planting seeds,” she said.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or on follow @joey_hancock on Twitter.