Cara McCollum '14, the first Princeton student crowned Miss New Jersey since 1999, poses with the judges, including Hilary Levey Friedman *09, third from right. (Photo: Richard Krauss Photography)

By Hilary Levey Friedman *09

For the first time in more than a decade, a Princeton student will compete for the title of Miss America. Cara McCollum, a rising senior and PAW On the Campus columnist, was crowned Miss New Jersey on June 15 in Ocean City. (In 1999, two Princetonians won state pageants — New Jersey’s Victoria Paige ’01 and Iowa’s Jennifer Caudle ’99.) The next stop for McCollum is Atlantic City, where she will vie for the Miss America crown on Sept. 15.

Princeton students frequently distinguish themselves inside and outside the classroom, but it’s rare to see them wearing crowns. (In contrast, Harvard has sent 10 undergraduates to the Miss America stage.) However, the relationship between Ivies and Miss America isn’t as strange as you might think. The Miss America Organization is the largest provider of scholarship money to women in the world — this year approximately $45 million will be awarded.

When she was crowned on Saturday night McCollum not only won a crown, but also $11,000 to apply to her Princeton education or graduate education. In a few months she’ll try to win another $50,000 at Miss America.

It was not always this way. When Miss America started in 1920 as a bathing beauty contest, it was a gimmick to extend the tourist season on the Jersey Shore. But things began to change around World War II; in 1938 the talent portion was added and in 1945 the first scholarship was awarded. The addition of another crucial component known as the “platform,” or a community service issue which the contestant promotes throughout her reign, came along in 1989.

McCollum’s talent is piano (despite only being able to use nine fingers due to a rare tumor in one finger), and her platform issue is about promoting youth literacy — she’ll develop the Birthday Book Program in New Jersey, which she started in her native Arkansas. In the calculus to help determine Miss New Jersey only 15 percent of the score is attributed to swimsuit, 35 percent to talent, 25 percent to interview and platform, and 25 percent to modeling in evening gown.

How do I know so much about Cara McCollum and pageants? I actually served as one of six judges who helped select her as Miss New Jersey. As an academic (with a Ph.D. in sociology) who more commonly interviews Princeton admission hopefuls, it’s a different experience to judge a beauty pageant. However, I have seen firsthand how young people benefit from learning to articulate their opinions and aspirations in front of strangers. It is a great pleasure to get to know young people like McCollum who are bright, well-spoken, and motivated to make a difference in their communities.

Read more: Cara McCollum ’14’s contributions to PAW, including a column about Lawnparties, news of a chef shakeup at Terrace Club, and a look at a creative-arts thesis.

Hilary Levey Friedman *09 is a Harvard sociologist who writes about after-school activities, beauty pageants, and competition. Her book, Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, will be released Sept. 1.