Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization Inc. helps to develop Vermont’s next generation of female leaders through their competitions, scholarship programs, and community initiatives.
STORY BY BENJAMIN LERNER
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY MISS VERMONT
In the 77 years since Mary Staikos took home the crown as the first Miss Vermont in 1945, hundreds of intelligent, driven, and passionate young women have participated in the empowering competitions facilitated by the Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization. From the moment that participants (known as “candidates”) first enter the Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions, they become part of a nurturing sisterhood of strong and supportive Vermont women. Candidates develop effective communication skills and natural confidence during the competition process, which has a profoundly positive effect on their future professional endeavors. Thanks to the generosity and effort of numerous corporate sponsors, volunteers, Board Members, and private donors, the scholarships awarded through the Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions have changed the lives of many candidates. The scholarships help candidates achieve their educational goals, allowing them to actualize their dreams and find fulfillment in their chosen fields.
Miss Vermont 2022, Alexina Federhen, first became inspired to compete in the Miss Vermont competition when she saw Miss Vermont at the Bennington Battle Day Parade at a young age. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘I want to be just like her!’” Federhen says that she was attracted to the aura of confidence that Miss Vermont exuded, which served as a source of inspiration for her. “I was bullied a lot in elementary, middle school, and high school, so I started competing in the Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions in order to find a community of people who cared about something bigger than themselves.”
By giving back to their communities through their chosen “Social Impact Initiatives,” competition winners are able to set an inspiring example for young women in all corners of Vermont. Every Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen winner embarks on a year of community service in line with their chosen Social Impact Initiative, and Federhen has already gone to extensive lengths to advocate for her cause. “My Social Impact Initiative is Speak Out, Reach Out: Supporting Mental Health Awareness. I suffered from depression and anxiety during my childhood. It took years to grow the confidence to reach out for help, so I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve been able to speak at different events and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. My goal is to visit every high school and middle school in Vermont during my year of service and share that message.”
Federhen is also thankful for the scholarship funding that she has received from participating in the Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions. “I will be forever grateful for the $3,000 scholarship that I received as a Vermont Outstanding Teen in 2014. It allowed me to afford my education at my dream school, Cornell University. I have now graduated from Cornell, and I am currently getting my Master’s degree in Fine Arts at Boston University. The $7.000 in scholarship dollars that I have recently been awarded by the Miss Vermont Organization will now allow me to hopefully graduate with my Master’s degree debt free.”
Miss Vermont 2019, Jillian Fisher, has also greatly benefitted from the cash scholarships awarded by the Miss Vermont competition. Fisher is currently enrolled in a veterinary program at Iowa State University. After winning the Miss Vermont competition in 2019, Fisher met many women at the Miss America competition who were actively involved in the STEM community. “The women that I met there were accomplishing amazing things in their chosen fields,” notes Fisher. “I competed with future pharmacists, doctors, and engineers, and it was wonderful to see those fields represented. In the current social climate, women’s empowerment is a critical issue. The Miss America Organization and the Miss Vermont organization specifically empowers women to be their truest selves, and encourages us to achieve whatever goals we set out to accomplish.”
Miss Vermont 2015, Alayna Westcom, is currently in her third year at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. Westcom was awarded over $20,000 in scholarship money during the course of her involvement in the Miss Vermont and Miss America competitions, and she says that the skills that she learned during the competitions positively influenced her academic and professional trajectories. “The money that I was awarded helped to pay for my undergraduate tuition. Separate from the scholarships, I have been able to successfully interview for jobs and implement the communication skills that I learned through my time in the Miss Vermont competition and Miss America competition. As I work towards becoming a physician, I’m using those skills to make that happen.”
Danielle Morse (Miss Vermont 2021) is also passionate about medicine and healthcare. When Morse underwent an appendectomy in 2014 as a freshman in high school, she experienced significant complications. After staying in the UVM Children’s Hospital for more than a month, she became the Children’s Miracle Network Champion for Vermont. Morse went on to graduate from Castleton University with a degree in Nursing in 2021. In the same year, Morse won the Miss Vermont crown and was able to continue her advocacy work for children’s hospitals through her Social Impact Initiative. “My Social Impact Initiative was raising money for children’s hospitals in Vermont. I raised almost $12,000 for my cause, and I was able to donate comfort items, such as stuffed animals and blankets, to kids who needed them.”
Miss Vermont 2010, Caroline Bright, currently volunteers with Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization as their Business Manager. She is also working towards a graduate degree in Divinity Studies at Meadville Lombard Theological School. Bright says that the skills that she learned while competing in the Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen, Miss Vermont, and Miss America Competitions have helped her greatly in her professional career. “In order be ordained as a Unitarian Universalist Minister, you have to undergo a six-hour interview in front of a panel of ministers. You give a sermon and then they quiz you on a variety of facts. Many of my colleagues and classmates were incredibly nervous about the interview, and I thought that I was doing something wrong, because I wasn’t anxious. Eventually, I realized that I had been trained to face panels of judges for years as a candidate in the Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions! Regardless of who ends up wearing the crown, the training that we receive throughout the competition process continues to impact the rest of our lives. There is no other program that prepares young women like this. It’s truly phenomenal.”
The Spirit of Competition
The annual Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions are open to women who are ages 18-26 and 13-18, respectively. In order to qualify to enter in the competitions, candidates must either reside in Vermont full-time, work in Vermont full-time, or attend college, school or university in Vermont full-time. To register for the Miss Vermont competition or the Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competition, candidates first register as a candidate with The Miss America Organization. Winners of the Miss Vermont competition and the Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competition progress onward to the Miss America competition or the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition on a national level, so this process serves as an ideal way to integrate both levels of registration.
Once the registration process is complete, candidates are automatically connected with a Candidate Coordinator from the Miss Vermont team. Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization’s Candidate Coordinators work closely with candidates to prepare them for the competition. “We also hold workshops for our candidates,” says Miss Vermont Scholarship Organization’s Executive Director, Darcie Fisher. “In larger states, candidates compete at local competitions throughout the state, which have boards that prepare them for the next level of competition. Here in Vermont, we don’t have local competitions, so we take it upon ourselves to facilitate training workshops for our candidates. We do mock interviews, and we also work with them on their paperwork to make sure that they showcase their best selves for the panelists to see.”
The Miss Vermont competition takes place over a two-day period. On the first day, candidates arrive for the first stage of the competition: a private interview with the panelists. The initial interview for Miss Vermont candidates lasts for about ten minutes. “Anything is fair game during that interview process,” notes Fisher. “Candidates could be asked about current events or asked about their chosen Social Impact Initiative.”
On the second day of competition, candidates compete in several different phases. One phase combines an onstage question element with a Social Impact Initiative pitch, where candidates are asked to speak for 45 to 60 seconds about their chosen platform. “The panelists also have the opportunity to ask questions that they didn’t ask during the previous interview,” says Fisher. In addition to the onstage question and social initiative phase, candidates are able to showcase their passions through the talent phase of the competition. Past talents have included singing, dancing, music, slam poetry, speed painting, science experiments, and American Sign Language Interpretation, among others.
The Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions are held on the same day at the same venue. This year, they were held at the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph on April 23rd and April 24th. Although the Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competitions are similar in format, there are several distinct differences. The Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen competition has a fitness phase, where candidates come out and do a fitness routine. There is also an optional, ancillary scholastic award for Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen candidates, which factors in their academic achievements.
Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen 2022, Abagail Hunter, took home the crown after a spirited dance performance, which was set to “They Just Keep Moving The Line,” from the NBC musical television series, SMASH. Hunter’s Social Impact Initiative is Pursue The ARTS: Building Acceptance, Respect, Tolerance, and Safety. As part of her Social Impact Initiative, Hunter is collecting new and gently-used dance items, such as leotards, tights, ballet shoes, and tap shoes. After collecting them, she plans to donate them to dance and performing arts schools, where they can be distributed to students who may need help affording these items. She is also raising money for several dance studios, which will be awarded as scholarships and financial aid as the owners of the studios see fit. Hunter plans to put her scholarship money from the Miss Vermont’s Outstanding teen competition towards an undergraduate degree at Castleton University. She will begin her education there this fall. “We are so proud of both Alexina and Abagail,” says Darcie Fisher. “They’re going to make an amazing difference with their Social Impact Initiatives, and it’s been a joy to work with them and see them grow through their involvement with Miss Vermont and Miss Vermont’s Outstanding Teen.”