WISCONSIN — Miss Wisconsin Grace Stanke, 20, was crowned the new Miss America on Thursday night.
Stanke is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies nuclear engineering. She said during the Miss America pageant, she wanted to showcase her love for nuclear energy as part of a larger mission of staying true to herself.
“Going into the competition, I knew I wanted to be 100% myself, and a nuclear engineer is a little bit outside the box for the Miss America organizations. So, I wasn’t sure if they would love it or not,” she said.
But on Tuesday night, that changed. Stanke was awarded the Talent Award in a preliminary round for her classical violin performance of “Storm” from the Summer movement of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
“That Talent Prelim award really showed that they were interested in having a nuclear engineer, and it was that evening that I realized, ‘This is something that I think is in my future,’ and I started really envisioning that for myself,” she said.
That award came with a $2,500 scholarship.
Her title came with a $50,000 scholarship, in addition to a salary. Miss America, Stanke explained, is not the beauty pageant it was even a few decades ago.
“Well, the biggest transition: Miss America isn’t a beauty pageant anymore,” she said. “We’re a scholarship competition. As of right now, I have almost $70,000 in scholarships earned from my time in the Miss America organization.”
The winner of Miss America isn’t the only one to take home the cash. In fact, that’s just a slice of what Miss America hands out.
“This continues to grow and they award $5 million for women all across the country to pursue higher education,” she said. “That truly is incredible and it shows how the Miss America organization is always evolving and always changing and always supporting women to go on into the world to do great things.”
Stanke started competing in Miss America pageants when she was 13-years-old. She said her first Miss America pageant was the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen organization.
MAOTeen is a scholarship pageant that acts as a “little sister” to Miss America. Competitors range from ages 13 to 18. The “Miss” division includes people between the ages of 17 to 26.
Stanke said she competed on and off from the time she joined as a young teen, citing she spent two years in MAOTeen division and two years in the Miss division.
Through MAOTeen, Stanke was crowned Miss Wausau’s Outstanding Teen 2016, Miss Harbor Cities’ Outstanding Teen 2017 and Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen 2017.
She’s the first person to be named Miss Wisconsin’s Outstanding Teen and Miss Wisconsin. She’s also the first person from Wausau to be crowned Miss Wisconsin.
She originally got involved to help her violin performance, and said she was looking for ways to stop “shaking.”
“That was an incredible way for me to get involved in the Miss America organization at a young age to help improve my violin skills,” Stanke said. “As soon as I got over those violin skills, I learned all the professional development opportunities and the interview skills, the friends, the scholarship dollars that I earned through the Miss America organization and my time in MAOTeen. I knew that this was a place I wanted to be.”
And, of course, she said, she’s gotten incredible opportunities along the way. Just before the Miss America competition this year, all of the candidates traveled to New York City together — a place she’d never been.
“We actually started out going to New York City together, all 51 candidates. And, we have such an incredible, diverse, amazing group of candidates that I competed along with this year. In New York City, we got to go through [and] do all of the touristy things, which for this Wisconsin girl that has never been to New York City before, I loved,” she said.
More than that, she left with 50 new friends.
“Going on throughout the rest of the week, you know, I have times and memories that we were literally laughing until the point of tears and it truly was so memorable and I am so thankful for the friendships I’ve formed this week,” she said.
Certainly, she has many memories yet to be made as well. Stanke will spend her year as Miss America promoting her social impact initiative: Clean Energy, Cleaner Future. Clean Energy, Cleaner Future aims “to help America convert to zero-carbon energy with an emphasis on nuclear power.”
Her Miss Wisconsin profile said she was inspired after her work and education made her realize the energy crisis on a global scale and fossil fuels running on short supply.
She said she’s excited to promote Wisconsin, too.
“It’s so exciting — representing the state of Wisconsin at the Miss America competition,” Stanke said. “Now, as Miss America, I get to not only promote nuclear energy and my passions, but I also am going to be able to go through and verify — and fully promote — that Wisconsin does have the best cheese, because I fully believe that we do.”
Lydia Taylor contributed to this report.