Courier Staff Writer
Erica Swanson’s jaw dropped when her name was called as this year’s Distinguished Young Woman of Iowa.
Joyce Sanchez, chair of Distinguished Young Women of Iowa since 1995, said the statewide program, which has been held in Ottumwa since 1973, benefits Iowa high school seniors “who want to further their education and exemplify that all-around high school girl.”
The program provides scholarships for the candidates to use toward their post-secondary education.
“This is a huge honor,” Swanson said after winning Saturday. “I’m absolutely surprised. All the other girls here are absolutely amazing and I could see any one of them getting it. I’m really happy.”
The program, formerly known as Iowa Junior Miss, changed its name to get away from being known as a “pageant” or the Miss America or Miss USA theme, Sanchez said.
At-large programs were held in Norwalk and Ottumwa last fall, which narrowed down the list of girls to nine: Allisyn Brandenburg of Kellogg, Taylor Hoskins of Walford, Ashlyn Nordyke of Ottumwa, Bridget Anderson of Ottumwa, Mandalyn Martin of Moulton, Tori Caddell of Council Bluffs, Erica Swanson of Ottumwa, Sarah Keith of Ottumwa and Bailey Whitsitt of Urbandale.
Swanson will receive a $1,500 scholarship, raised through funds from Ottumwa’s Oktoberfest parade, to go toward her college education. She plans to attend Iowa State University, studying kinesiology and health.
This summer, Swanson will represent Iowa at the national Distinguished Young Woman program in Mobile, Ala., where she will compete against 49 other girls for the top designation.
Each candidate is judged in five categories: self expression, scholastics, talent, fitness and an interview.
Before the event began Saturday night, 45 percent of the candidates’ scores had already been decided from their scholastics and their interview on Friday.
The girls put in long hours last week, rehearsing at Bridge View Center from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, as well as extra rehearsals from 6:30-10 p.m. every night.
They also heard from businesswomen throughout the community, who spoke about being a leader and motivating others.
“It gives the girls self-esteem and interview skills they can take with them forever,” Sanchez said.
In 1992, Sanchez’s family became a host family for one of the candidates.
“My daughter is an only child, and she thought it would be neat to have a sister for a week,” Sanchez said. “It’s addictive. Once you get involved, you’re hooked.”
After an opening number and a song from last year’s winner, Rachael Ostrem, the girls completed the self expression portion of the program, where they are asked a question at random and must answer on the spot. Questions ranged from sexting to bullying to obesity.
The Adopt-A-School program is always the candidates’ favorite part of the week, Sanchez said. The nine girls were spread throughout the Ottumwa school district at Douma, Eisenhower, Wilson, Wildwood and Horace Mann Elementary Schools. A child from each classroom the girls visited was chosen to go on stage with their “new best friend” Saturday.
Whitsitt was awarded this year’s “Be Your Best Self” award after writing an essay about a father figure in her life. While her father was never present in her life growing up, she had two strong male figures to help guide her: her grandfather and her stepfather.
“I was blessed to spend every morning, afternoon and summers with my grandparents,” Whitsitt wrote. “I live the way he would have wanted me to.”
Her stepfather has also been an important man in her life.
“I’m so incredibly grateful that Mark came into my life and completed our family,” she wrote.
The Spirit Award, which is voted on by all nine candidates and goes to the girl who best exemplifies “Be Your Best Self” was awarded to Caddell.