The identity of the American “girl next door” is evolving, according to Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014.
In a Tuesday talk in Battell Chapel attended by roughly 100 members of the Yale community, the 24-year-old Davuluri — the winner of this year’s national Miss America pageant, and former Miss New York — discussed cultural competency and her struggle against the ignorance that stands in its way.
Although she was born and raised in the United States and views herself as “first and foremost American,” Davuluri was the subject of a controversy in late 2013 when she became the first Indian American to be crowned Miss America. Many spectators took to various forms of social media such as Facebook and Twitter to express what has often been described as racist and xenophobic views against Davuluri. The backlash was similar to another incident in 1983, when Vanessa Williams became the first African American to win the title.
Davuluri said she experienced similar vitriol after being crowned Miss New York, which prepared her for scrutiny on the national stage. She added that she learned to “turn it into a positive” by using her new title as a megaphone to share her experience.
Davuluri said that a lack of cultural understanding can exist at every level of society, even among college-educated individuals. As Miss America, she said she is helping to change that, both at home and abroad.
One of the ways she is helping to change societal standards is by changing the existing definition of beauty.
“For the first time, girls at home can say ‘this year, Miss America actually looks like me,’” Davuluri said, adding that the ideal of the blue-eyed and blonde-haired American “girl next door” is evolving as the demographics of America change.
Davuluri said she represents someone that parents are comfortable having their daughters look up to — the type of role model that has been missing in America.
Beyond beauty, Davuluri emphasized the extent to which the Miss America Organization is empowering for young women. She is especially proud of her education, she said, which is what the organization is all about. Through Miss America, Davuluri said she has received a considerable number of scholarships and has learned hard-to-teach skills like networking and how to give an interview.
According to Davuluri, being beautiful is just “icing on the cake.”
In using Miss America as a platform to launch her campaign of cultural understanding, Davuluri has taken to social media to launch her “Circles of Unity” movement, encouraging her followers to tweet their own thoughts about cultural awareness.
Social media is a wonderful resource, Davuluri said, but its biggest problem is that it can be used for bullying. But in the end, she said, all bullying stems from ignorance. Davuluri said there are “always going to be ignorant people” — but she believes that the spread of ignorance can be prevented by reaching out to the youngest generations.
She realized that her purpose in life is to serve others after taking a trip to India where she volunteered at an orphanage for kids with physical and mental disabilities, she said.
Many in attendance of the talk felt that Miss America was well spoken and that her talk addressed important cultural issues.
“I like that she is using her position to combat ignorance,” said Angie Fuentes ’17.
Elizabeth Tokarz ’17 agreed. “I also liked that she expanded her discussion on cultural competence to include every culture,” she said. “Too often we think that somehow only America faces these challenges, when in reality ignorance is widespread.”
Davuluri is a graduate of The University of Michigan and has a bachelor’s degree in brain, behavior and cognitive science.