SOUTHERN INDIANA—When Southern Indiana resident Dayna Ashley was crowned Miss Indiana in 1993, it had lasting effects upon her life.
For one thing, her participation in pageants ranging from Miss Harvest Homecoming to Miss America earned her scholarships that paid for the entirety of her college education at Indiana University Southeast.
But that's not the only way the pageant changed her life. It also allowed her to serve the state and the community, showcase her musical talents and develop valuable communication skills, she said.
Ashley, now a real estate broker at Schuler Bauer in New Albany, is one of the local women who have been influenced by their participation in the statewide pageant. This week, eight residents from both Clark and Floyd counties will compete in the 2019 Miss Indiana and Miss Indiana's Miss Outstanding Teen pageants.
The pageants will take place this week in Zionsville, with preliminary competitions from Wednesday to Friday and the finals on Saturday. The contest includes several areas of competition, including talent presentations, private and on-stage interviews, evening wear and social impact statements. Their social impact platform is a cause they choose to advocate for during their year of service.
The process of competing in the statewide pageant starts at the local level, and if a contestant wins at the state contest, they can proceed to compete in the national Miss America contest. Cara Lawson, executive director for the Miss Harvest Homecoming program, said having the opportunity to compete in these pageants is beneficial both for the young women and for the community as a whole.
"Not only does it allow eye-opening networking opportunities for these young women, opportunities for them to showcase their talent, showcase their speaking skills and gain career opportunities...but it is exceedingly beneficial for us as a community to have them because this program develops the mindset and the skill set of these young women in our community, and it propels them forward into not only our community, but our nation on each different level as they proceed," she said.
The scholarships are also an essential part of the pageants. Miss Indiana gives out more $45,000 in scholarships each year.
The contest has gone through several changes over the years, including the removal of the swimsuit competition from Miss Indiana and the Miss America Organization in the past year.
Lawson said as the local contestants proceed through the various levels of pageants, whether they are statewide or national, they help place Southern Indiana on the map as it draws attention to the community by representing the community.
She said she has seen a wide variety of both social impact platforms and talents presented by local contestants over the years. She has seen initiatives focused on animal shelters, breast cancer awareness and veterans programs, and she has seen talents such singing, dancing, rollerskating and science experiments.
"Miss America has to be dynamic. Miss America has not only be a representative of our country, but also be able to perform and entertain as well. That high level does not just appear from nowhere—it's cultivated, and these young women practice and they perform their talent and they perfect their talent over and over as they are rising throughout each of the steps of this organization," Lawson said. "It helps our young women be multi-faceted and showcase all of the different passions they have onstage."
Morgan Jackson, who won Miss Indiana in 2015 at age 21, has also benefitted from the local and state pageants. The former Charlestown resident was Miss Harvest Homecoming's Outstanding Teen and Miss Indiana's Outstanding Teen in 2007, and she was Miss Harvest Homecoming when she won the Miss Indiana title.
Jackson, who is classically trained in dance, performed lyrical ballet as her talent for the pageant. Although she graduated with a bachelors degree with communications from the University of Louisville, she decided to follow her passion for dance, and she is now is pursuing as a career as a performer and dance instructor in New York City.
The $10,000 scholarship she received from Miss Indiana and the $3,000 from Harvest Homecoming helped her out with college, she said, and in her year as Miss Indiana, she had the opportunity to serve the community in a variety of ways. For example, her "Project Impact" platform involved going into schools to inspire students to pursue their dreams and make a difference in their communities.
"I could be at an event where I’m with government officials and I’m speaking with various people who are well-educated, and I’m talking about differences we can make in society and in our communities, and then a couple hours later, I’m at a gas station in a very low socioeconomic part of Indiana giving out hot dogs to children who haven’t had a solid, decent meal in what appeared to be several days," Jackson said.
As a dancer, she was able to perform what she loves in front of a wide audience at the Miss Indiana pageant. Talent was her favorite part of the competition, and as Miss Indiana, she received even more opportunities to perform, and the skills she learned from the pageants have helped her professional development.
"Moving to New York, I've had to go to several job interviews and audition as a performer and try to book gigs, so it's not only being able to put myself together and know how to present myself on the outside, but also know how to communicate my brand and who I am as a person. I think that's largely in part to what I learned as Miss Indiana and Miss Harvest Homecoming," she said.
Ashley was inspired to enter the pageants because of the scholarships and the opportunities to sing in the talent portion of the contest. She got her start by winning the Miss Harvest Homecoming pageant, and she then became the third runner up at Miss Indiana. She held the title of Miss Capital City when she won Miss Indiana.
During her year as Miss Indiana, she expanded upon her platform of expanding quality of life for seniors, and she created a program called "Hand in Hand" focused on building connections between youth and seniors at nursing homes. After winning the Miss Indiana title, she went on to compete in the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, where she was named a top seven “Quality of Life Finalist” for Outstanding Community Service in Indiana.
The scholarship programs for each level of the pageants had profound impacts on her life, Ashley said, and she graduated from IUS with a degree in communications and music (with an emphasis in vocal performance). The Miss Indiana program continues to follow her today, she said.
"The biggest impact would be the scholarship money, first of all, and just the fact that it paid for my whole college education was amazing" she said. "What a gift that was. But then it has also opened doors. Having been Miss Indiana, and having the wonderful privilege of serving the state of Indiana, including New Albany and Southern Indiana, which is my hometown, has opened so many doors for me personally and professionally."
The program helps young women perfect their talents, interview skills and interpersonal skills, she said. She pursued a career as a singer after graduating college, which included several United Service Organizations and traveling with country musicians, and the skills she learned through the pageants have helped her in her interactions as a real estate broker and her ongoing service in the community.
"All those competitions and all those programs were just stepping stones in life to help you grow and to learn and to build and to be the best person you can be and to give back," Ashley said. "The role of Miss Indiana is a special one, because you really have to have a servant's heart, because you literally put others first. You are serving your community, you are serving the state of Indiana, and you are truly an ambassador."