Sarah Downs, a 2012 College graduate , kept her activities outside of Penn relatively quiet.
“When people hear that you compete they think, ‘Oh she’s a pageant girl’ — especially at Penn where people care [so much] about intelligence — so I wasn’t screaming it from the rooftops,” said Sarah, who competed in the Miss America competition on Sept. 15 as the newest Miss Idaho, a title she won this past summer. While she didn’t make the top 15 in the Miss America pageant, she said that she “felt lucky to even be Miss Idaho.”
She added that she entered the Miss America pageant specifically because of what it stands for as an organization. “The Miss America pageant isn’t about beauty, it’s about your education, your talent, your interview and how well you speak,” she said. “It’s really not about how you look.”
Sarah began entering pageants in Idaho at the age of 17, prior to enrolling in Penn.
“I started for scholarship money,” Sarah said. “But I really fell in love with it.”
Sarah started competing in her hometown of Emmett, Idaho and reached the state level competition four times. This past summer, she won at the state level and had six weeks to prepare for the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City, N.J.
“I never made the top 10 for the first three years I competed,” Sarah said. “But I really focused on it this year since I wasn’t in school.”
During her years at Penn, when she was a member of the sorority Zeta Tau Alpha, Sarah always tried to put school first, competing during the summers and on school breaks.
Coming from such a small town in Idaho, coming to Penn was a big shock to her.
“When I got to Penn, my grades were horrible — I really struggled and considered transferring,” she said. “[But] I decided to stay and I learned how to work hard, how to study [and how to] sacrifice.”
Sarah explained that in her hometown, many people graduate high school and then get married very young and do not go to college. “People here don’t realize they can have a family and an education,” she said.
But Sarah was very intent on getting her education, and she attritubes her time at Penn as part of what led her to succeed in the pageant world.
“Going into Miss Idaho I knew what I had to do to win,” she said. “If you really want something you can get it but it takes so much work — Penn taught me that.”
Although she didn’t win Miss America, Sarah still has duties as Miss Idaho. She will make many appearances in the state and she hopes to influence girls to show them that it’s possible to get an education and follow their dreams. She will work with STEM education, which strives to help women get into the underrepresented fields of sciences and math.
Her personal platform is nutrition, a subject she actually minored in at Penn. She aims to promote farmers markets, gardening programs and eating on a budget.
“I think many of us carry certain stereotypes about women who compete in pageants, and Sarah certainly doesn’t fit that ‘mold,’” Stephanie Weaver, House Dean of Hill, said. Weaver had been close with Sarah during Sarah’s four years in Hill. “Serving as Miss Idaho has introduced her to many people and opportunities that she wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to.”
“Many people don’t know this, but Miss America is the number one provider of scholarships for women,” Sarah said, adding that the organization gives out 45 million dollars every year.
“Some pageants’ goal is to get a modeling contract, but [Miss America] is really based on education and helping women be prepared for life,” she said. Miss America’s symbol, the crown, has four points to represent its values: scholarship, service, success and style.
Sarah added, “My goal was to experience everything, take it in, make memories and friends — and that’s what I did.”