In the News


Pageantry and Purpose

Since she joined the pageant circuit at 13, there’s been virtually no stopping current Miss America Grace Stanke.

Jeanne Nagle | In the News | April 2023

Sure, there’s the moment they call your name in the packed auditorium, to cheers from the audience and screams of joy from your fellow contestants. Or maybe the significance of what has just happened hits home as the sash is draped over you and the crown is pinned to your hair, so it stays put while you take a victory stroll across the stage. But for Grace Stanke, nothing says being Miss America 2023 quite like a bunch of kids welcoming you to their school.

“One of the moments that is seared in my mind was when they introduced me,” Stanke recalls of a recent speaking engagement at an elementary school in Chandler, Arizona,. “I waved at the kids with a smile. Little did I expect 200 small hands to shoot up in the air and wave back, in addition to the chimes of ‘Hello Miss America!’

“Inside, I still feel like Grace Stanke, a normal human. But moments like those remind me of the excitement of being Miss America.”

Stanke’s path to winning the coveted title started when she was about the same age as that adoring throng of children. She took up the violin in the second grade, and while she held no illusions of becoming a professional musician, that didn’t stop her from wanting to achieve a certain level of proficiency on the instrument. She began entering local music competitions in the hopes of earning money to offset the cost of further lessons to improve her instrumental skills. There was only one problem. “I struggled performing in front of people,” she says.

Ironically, Stanke decided that the best way to overcome her stage fright was to seek out additional performance opportunities—a trial by fire, if you will. The gambit worked, and brought with it a bonus. While seeking out opportunities to perform, Stanke discovered the Miss Outstanding Teen program, which is essentially a junior division of the Miss America organization, open to those age 13 to 18.

“When I found the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program, I found not only another performance opportunity, but a scholarship and professional development organization,” she says. 

Under the MAOT program umbrella, Stanke won pageant titles at the local and regional levels before nabbing the Miss Wisconsin Outstanding Teen crown in 2017. Her talent at each event was—you guessed it—playing the violin.

At the time of her teen state win, she was a 15-year-old high school student concurrently taking classes on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point at Wausau campus under dual enrollment. There she took a variety of university general education courses, from creative writing to calculus and physics. The class credits she accumulated through Wausau were transferred toward the pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering when she enrolled at UW-Madison in 2019.

Even after she had aged out of the Outstanding Teen program, Stanke remained intermittently active on the pageant circuit, graduating to competitions within the Miss America program itself. In 2022, she took the local title of Miss Badgerland before winning the Miss Wisconsin crown, which qualified her to represent the state in the Miss America pageant. She was crowned the winner of the national pageant on December 15, 2022 at the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Connecticut.

As one might imagine, there are plenty of perks to being Miss America. For example, at the risk of being gauche … let’s just say Stanke no longer needs to worry about finding money to pay for violin lessons. In addition to earning nearly $69,000 in scholarships throughout her 2022 run at the title, she will be paid a full-time job salary throughout her year-long reign.

As Miss America, Stanke also benefits from having a nationwide platform for her chosen “social impact initiative”--promoting nuclear power as the safe, clean energy source of the future. Her advocacy efforts align perfectly with her career goal of working within the power and electricity industry as a nuclear engineer once she graduates from UW-Madison this fall. “I was fortunate that I always knew engineering would be my path,” she says. “I specifically became interested in nuclear because honestly, it just sounded really cool. My dad said I shouldn’t go into it, so I did what every 16-year-old teenage girl does--the total opposite of what my dad said to do.”

Arguably the best perk of her new position is being able to connect with people nationwide, and touch lives on many different levels. She says she enjoys engaging in “intellectual conversations” with individuals regarding nuclear energy and other topics. Especially rewarding are her interactions with the youth of America.

“I had a sixth grader send me his science project on nuclear engineering,” she relates. “I recently had a sophomore from Florida tell me about how excited she is to go into a field like mine and know her voice is heard. Most of the time I don’t see an immediate impact from what I do, but it’s kids like those that make me realize how much of an impact I am making.

“At its core, Miss America is a women’s empowerment organization,” she says. “Not only am I able to talk about my personal mission as a nuclear engineer, I’m also able to talk about representing the Women Who Can. I share my message of not being put in a box--that women can do anything they set their minds to, including competitive waterskiing, nuclear engineering, playing classical violin, being Miss America and so much more.”

Images courtesy of the Miss America Organization/Grace Stanke