Miss New Jersey Collegiate 2020 certainly understands that, at first blush, beauty pageants and anti-bullying campaigns make for an unlikely, if now downright incompatible, pairing.
But Claudia Engelhardt, who’s also a longtime Mt. Laurel resident and fierce advocate for kindness, has been doing pageants since she was little — “not like Toddlers and Tiaras,” she clarifies — and knows firsthand just how much good can come from them, despite pessimistic public perception.
“I think that, sometimes, pageantry has this preconceived negative connotation to it,” Engelhardt admits. “I know for me, sometimes, it did, too: You have to be a certain size or have a certain look, or you have to have a lot of money. But in today’s world, in this pageant system, all of those things are challenged.”
Engelhardt explains that pageants like Miss America get the most attention because they’re televised, but, she adds, “There are so many different pageants out there that are just as competitive and rewarding.”
What drew her to the Miss Collegiate pageant system was not only the opportunity it presented her to “reach more people and make a greater impact with a title than I could just as Claudia Engelhardt,” but also its BRAVE initiative.
BRAVE, or Building Respect and Valuing Everyone, is the official national platform of the Miss Jr. High, High School and Collegiate America organization. Engelhardt says she navigated childhood bullying in her youth; while she’s grateful it never escalated to outright harassment or followed her as she got older, the experience was enough to leave a lasting impression.
“Growing up, I was bullied a little bit — thankfully, it wasn’t that severe but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth and had some lingering effects,” Engelhardt notes. “Knowing that this specific pageant system advocates for BRAVE so much meant a lot to me, because who wants a child to be bullied?”
After the surreal, humbling moment she was crowned Miss New Jersey Collegiate 2020 in January, Engelhardt has been diligently upholding her title-holder duties, which involve making appearances at events or volunteering her time at least twice a month.
Those efforts don’t necessarily have to correlate to BRAVE, but Engelhardt believes so fiercely in the program that she’s working to bring its message to the same community she grew up in and the Mt. Laurel and Lenape Regional school districts she attended.
“I reached out to several schools and libraries to set up some presentations and readings,” she says. “It’s not just specifically with BRAVE, since other things I advocate for are health and wellness, body positivity and inclusivity. I like to gear my presentation more toward elementary school students because they’re so much more susceptible when they’re younger, but my goal is to bring this to the high schools, too.”
Part of Engelhardt’s inspiration for getting involved with schools is how dearly a formal education is valued in her family of recent immigrants.
“I am a second-generation Mexican American — my grandmother was from Spain and my grandfather was from Mexico — so education was really important for them,” Engelhardt explains. Her mother’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University, as well as the associate’s degree she herself earned from Rowan College at Burlington County last year and the degree she’s working toward as a Liberty University junior are points of pride in her family.
Engelhardt adds: “I’m honoring them, honoring their dream, honoring my family through working hard and going to school. The cherry on top is having this title that specifically highlights education.”
In addition to celebrating academic success, Engelhardt says the Miss Jr. High, High School and Collegiate America pageants are also excellent ways to polish one’s oratory.
“It really helps refine your interview skills, especially for college girls,” she says. “For the interview portion, most of points you get are from how articulate of a speaker you are. It’s typically timed anywhere from two to five minutes, so it’s really important that you know how to get your message across in that time.”
Engelhardt also believes that holding a pageant title — especially if its representative of a system that prioritizes community service — helps anyone with civically minded ambition bring more attention to their causes.
“If you have something that you feel strongly and passionate about, whether it’s mental health or suicide prevention — for me, aside from BRAVE, it’s body positivity and inclusivity — you’re already going to be advocating for that,” she says.
“And having a title, that gives you the opportunity to talk to more schools and get more involved in your community.”
With the national title on the line for June’s national Miss Collegiate America competition in Little Rock, Arkansas, Engelhardt has “been in full-on prep mode” since winning her state title. But the real crowning achievement, she insists, is the opportunity to be the kind of role model she once looked up to as a younger, newer entrant to the pageant scene and the values it championed.
“Before I was eligible to compete as a Miss, I started to see the impact that pageants had,” she says. “I started looking up to the Miss contestants and I was like, ‘Wow, they really have so much going on, they’re so involved in their community. I wanted to be like that. And being that kind of an inspiration is something I love to strive for.”