When Amia Nash didn't hear her name called for fourth, third or second place during the naming of the runners-up in the Miss Silicon Valley competition last December, she was disappointed — that is, until she was crowned the winner.
"I was standing on the stage still; I thought, 'Wow, I did really badly; I didn't even get top five,'" Nash said. "I was looking around, thinking, 'All these other girls still remaining are very talented, smart women, doing crazy impressive things in our community.' When they called my name, I didn't know what to do. I was like, 'Do I walk forward?'"
Nash, who has lived in the Bay Area for six years and recently completed her master's degree in community health and prevention research at Stanford University, will now go on to compete for Miss California this December. And she's not alone: Jacqueline Wibowo, a Stanford senior who will graduate in June with a bachelor's degree in public policy and a master's degree in management science and engineering, will also be competing, as she was recently crowned Miss San Jose.
"It was just really exciting," Wibowo said. "You go into it and you work hard, but something that they like to tell every contestant is that on any given day, (the winner) could be any given girl. It depends on the judges."
As titleholders in the Miss America Organization, both women are now using their respective titles as Miss San Jose and Miss Silicon Valley during their year of public service. Nash's platform is mental health advocacy, an issue that has been important to her since high school; Wibowo's is women in leadership. She has already spoken to young women at local schools, including Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, hoping to empower them to pursue their careers.
On April 21, she'll help host the Women in Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford as an initiative with the Business Association for Stanford Entrepreneurial Students. The event will feature prominent female entrepreneurs.
"They say to choose something that you really care about, and at first I thought about increasing diversity in tech or increasing women in tech," Wibowo said. "Then I realized I wanted something a little more universal and that the issues I cared about most in all these fields was getting more women in leadership positions."
Nash's connection to her platform was strengthened after she graduated from Santa Clara University and had an internship researching Asian-American adolescent mental health in Palo Alto.
"Part of it was recognizing that our local Palo Alto community does have higher rates of adolescent depression and suicide," Nash said. "I want to raise awareness (about it) in the local community. It's something I'm hoping to have conversations about and de-stigmatize."
Nash plans on partnering with nonprofits in the Bay Area, as well as the Stanford Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to further her advocacy work.
Stephanie Quintal, the executive director of the Miss Santa Clara Organization, the program that bestowed both women's titles, said that Nash's clear vision of what she wants for her life and her strong ties to service likely contributed to her success in the Miss America Organization. Wibowo has similar strengths, according to Quintal.
"For (Wibowo), I think this is a journey of self-realization and personal growth, but she came in with a very clear understanding of who she was," Quintal said.
In addition to public service, both women are training for the Miss California pageant: Participants must demonstrate an individual "talent" as well as complete a 10-minute, press-conference-style interview and several other sections, according to Quintal.
In order to prepare for the interview, Nash will work with Tony Moises, a volunteer interview coach who works with most of the regional pageant titleholders in California. The section includes discussion of current events, opinions on relevant social and political issues, and further conversation regarding participants' platform, Nash said.
Nash will also practice her talent, which is Tahitian dancing. Wibowo's talent is playing the piano.
Wibowo said that in competing for the state title, she wants to demonstrate that Miss California "does not have just one image."
"For me as a first-generation Asian-American, and also as someone who could be considered more nerdy as a Stanford student who loves finance and tech and business, I want to show that I'm also someone who can love being on stage, performing and community service," she said. "Miss California (should) represent that a girl can achieve in a lot of different ways."
Nash expressed similar sentiments about competing.
"I really wanted to show that girls can be strong, we can be athletes, we can be nerds and go to great schools like Stanford, and still be examples of strong, beautiful women," she said. "That's something I'm hoping to keep in myself (while competing)."
Demonstrating one's beauty on stage has required Nash and Wibowo to stay in good shape. Wibowo follows a daily routine, working out every day, sticking to a diet of mainly lean proteins and not eating after 9 p.m.
"I think the hard part is the diet," she said. "You're running from class to class and you get hungry."
She also sets aside a few hours each month to rehearse her evening gown and bikini runway walks.
In the practice room recently, Wibowo put on music from past pageants and walked in 6-inch heels, not once removing her gaze from the mirror, except when she practiced looking out onto the audience. She analyzed her every move, freezing in one position and then fixing her feet in different places to control every detail of her form.
She reviews her practices with the help of a friend.
"I'll just have a friend film me and be like, 'Does this look awkward?' or 'What looks funny?' and you just gather tips from there," she said. "I watch a lot of YouTube videos and you just kind of figure out what works for you."
At the Miss California pageant this winter, Wibowo will be wearing a plain green dress, with a few sparkles, which is deliberately understated.
"My whole aura that I'm trying to project is really elegant, classic, understated in the sense that you have to look closer," she said. "My dress is form fitting but a little bit more modest, hinting at what might be there versus showing everything."
Her theme is reflected as she practices her evening gown walk to slower music. She glides across the stage rather than strutting to the music as she does in her bikini walk rehearsal.
For both Wibowo and Nash, the program's scholarship awards largely motivated their participation. As the winner of Miss San Jose, Wibowo won $1,775 in scholarship money; she also won the overall talent and overall interview awards, for which she was awarded an extra $200. For being crowned Miss Silicon Valley, Nash was awarded $1,775.
Most of the competitors are similarly motivated, Quintal said.
"These aren't just girls who want to get on stage and look pretty in a bikini. ... They are women with goals and aspirations who want to do things with their lives, and we are trying to give them the platform to do that, and some scholarship money and life skills at the same time."