Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri urged students to fight societal and familial pressures and follow their passions during her visit to the University Thursday.
After winning her title in September 2013, Davuluri experienced a surge of racist and Islamophobic remarks on social media, most notably on Twitter. In response, a number of Duke students made a video in support that gained national attention. Davuluri's visit aimed to promote her platform—Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency. The visit was coordinated by Duke Partnership for Service and Diya, the South Asian Students Association.
“We wanted to put together a big event that was accessible to everybody on campus and to bring somebody in that was really relevant to the student experience,” said senior Ajay Parikh, DPS vice president of campus culture and Diya president of internal affairs.
During her visit, Davuluri worked at the campus farm, shared her story about being Miss America through a discussion on service and identity and had dinner with selected students at the Washington Duke Inn.
Davuluri started her speech by thanking the Duke community for supporting her and turning the backlash against her into a positive discussion.
“To be here with students who have truly embraced my platform from day one means so much to me,” she said.
Davuluri said she grew up watching Miss America, genuinely feeling she could not win because of her race and that that needed to be changed.
"We live in a country that's not as simple as black and white anymore," she said.
"For me, it was more about changing the perception of who Miss America was, who the girl next door was and to reach out to a new demographic of young women that's representative of what America is today."
She noted that choosing Bollywood dance as her talent exemplified her will in promoting diversity and showcasing her unique passion.
One of the four pillars of the Miss America organization is scholarship, Davuluri said. When she found herself in the position that she needed funding to go to graduate school, she pursued her dream of entering the pageant.
“For me, this was a creative way to share my talents, to have a microphone, to share what I care about...and I was always a performer," Davuluri said.
The journey to become Miss America has taught Davuluri to know herself, first and foremost, she said. Throughout the process, her parents were not "110 percent" supportive of her decision and she felt pressured to go down the medical path. Despite this, she followed through with her dream to compete and become Miss America.
“To put yourself out there, to be vulnerable, is a very difficult place, but it’s a very powerful place,” she said. “And when you find something that you’re absolutely passionate about, that you feel is the right fit, that’s your instinct to do that."
Davuluri said that if she has learned anything since being crowned, it is the importance of trusting one's instincts and being self-aware, because it is easy to lose one's sense of self in today’s society. She added that it is easy to feel pressured by parents and peers to be a certain a way or to go down a certain path, but it is still important to remain true to oneself.
Service is another pillar of the Miss America organization, Davuluri said. She promotes science, technology, engineering and mathematics education, specifically among women. Additionally, she is a National Goodwill Ambassador for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.
DPS president Katherine Fraile, a senior, said she hoped the event would attract students who might not be regulars in the service community to get involved in service and be inspired by a celebrity like Davuluri to continue in their involvement.
Duke Campus Farm fellow Emily McGinty, Trinity ’13, said she was excited to see that Davuluri's platform focuses on fostering cultural understanding, adding that she thinks there are many ways food ties in with that idea.
“Food can be a really central part of building cross-cultural understanding, whether that’s actually sharing meals or thinking about how we learn about people...based on food and culture,” McGinty said.
Senior Vinesh Kapil, who volunteered at the Campus Farm event, said the location drew him to attend.
“I love being outside, meeting new people and if you can do a good thing while doing it, then why not do it?” he said. “It’s really cool that Nina came up because that’s something you wouldn’t expect Miss America to do... I really respect her for doing that and for encouraging service in the way that she did."