A group of high school girls and their families walked the halls of a local school Saturday. School was not in session, but they were there to learn. As the girls tried on sequined outfits and filled out paperwork, they learned about what the next month would hold before their big week.
The girls are contestants in the Tennessee State Distinguished Young Women scholarship competition, and the day was set aside to prepare for the week of competition that begins on July 15.
The competition, which was known as the Junior Miss competition until 2010, evaluates each contestant on factors such as her chosen talent, physical fitness, academic performance and how well she fares in an interview with the judges.
The annual program requires many hours of planning and organization, said Tracie Fant, co-chair of the Distinguished Young Women state competition. Volunteers like Fant are responsible for planning the state competition — from where it will be held to what schedule the contestants will follow. “It’s a lot of work,” Fant said. “After this day, we feel like we’ve accomplished a lot.”
As girls and their families shuffled into Arnold Memorial Elementary School, they were greeted by volunteers who gave them their gold-and-black sequined costumes they will be wearing in a group dance for the physical fitness portion of the competition. After that, they made their way through a line to turn in paperwork. There were clothes fittings and portraits. After that contestants excitedly pored over their schedules and met other contestants for the first time as they waited for an orientation meeting. The adults helping girls through the process were all volunteers, and many of them were former contestants themselves.
Chelsea Milligan, who was the 2010 Junior Miss of Tennessee and is serving as the competition’s choreographer this year, said she has stayed involved with the competition because she has fond memories of when she was a contestant.
“The experience I got is something you can never forget,” Milligan said. “It’s my way of giving back.”
She said the time leading up to her becoming Junior Miss had her spending a lot of time with other contestants in rehearsals leading up to the main events. Because of that, she was able to build friendships with them, and she now hopes this year’s contestants will as well. “It’s great to watch these girls make friendships and get involved themselves,” Milligan said.
Another aspect of the competition that can foster friendships, Fant said, is the fact contestants stay with host families in Cleveland and Chattanooga the week of the competition. Each contestant is paired up with a roommate, and both girls stay with the same host family. As they filled out their paperwork and were handed schedules Saturday, the girls also got their roommate assignments. Some would find out who they would be staying with at the orientation meeting, and the others would find out closer to the competition.
As some girls grow up watching older girls compete in DYW, many realize they want to as well, said Yeewon Liew, a contestant and this year’s Distinguished Young Woman of Rhea County.
“In my county, there’s a lot of girls that watched the program growing up,” Liew said. “I’m very excited to be doing it myself.”
Other girls say they chose to compete because of what they thought competing could do for them personally.
“For me, it was like a confidence thing,” said Katy Bunn, the contestant representing Cumberland Valley. “I think it’s helped me learned to be more confident — even at my county competition.”
Many who had been involved with Distinguished Young Women as contestants said taking part in the competition made them neglect their shyness in the interest of doing well. “It takes a lot to be onstage speaking about your beliefs and carrying yourself confidently,” Milligan said.
As the competition’s events get closer to their start dates, Fant said she expects more girls will make close friendships and learn to become more confident in what they do.
Contestants will be participating in multiple rehearsals together before the competition. Every year, contestants do a service project as a group the week of the competition as well. This year, they will be making blankets for Project Linus, an organization that distributes blankets to those in need.
The Distinguished Young Women Tennessee state competition events begin July 15 and will last through July 21 at Bradley Central High School’s Fine Arts building.