As Miss Teen of America, it wouldn't be right if I never ventured outside of the northern states. So in late July, I made my first trip down South to staff the Miss Teen of North Carolina and Miss Teen of Georgia pageants.
I traveled to Greensboro College, and then Wesleyan College the following weekend, to help find the girls who could best represent all the young women of North Carolina and Georgia, respectively.
While the girls and experiences are always unique, each state pageant remains pretty constant. I first get to meet the candidates, ranging in age from 13 to 18, at check-in on Thursday. The girls are always so shy and unsure about what is going to happen. That's why I always love Thursday night's Get Acquainted Party, when games and junk food begin to strip away the girls' insecurities and they feel comfortable being themselves. It was wonderful to see how easily I could relate to the girls and my fellow titleholders from North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, despite our geographic differences.
Both Saturdays were a bustle of activity, as the judges scored the girls' resumes, interviews and personality projection. Being a scholarship pageant, our judges don't look for beauty, but character, intelligence and achievement. Saturday nights, however, allow us to relax with a talent show and skit performances by the girls, before Sunday's finals.
The week between the pageants, I stayed with one of my pageant directors, Sunny Hylton, at her home in Atlanta. We volunteered at a number of organizations and saw all the sights of the bustling city -- the Georgia Aquarium, the Coca-Cola Museum, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb, and behind the scenes at CNN, thanks to my principal's sister, Mary Ann Ryan, a CNN producer.
I experienced a number of firsts, including my first sweet tea, grits, sushi, fried okra, and Chic-Fil-A, a Southern chicken and biscuit restaurant as popular as McDonald's and pronounced "chick fillet."
I had been warned by many that as a "Yankee" I would be unwelcome in the South. I found this to be completely untrue. Everyone I met was so friendly and tended to question only how I was handling the Georgia heat, thinking I had only seen snow in Buffalo.
By the end of my trip, I had met so many wonderful people and made new additions to my Miss Teen family. This includes the new Miss Teen of North Carolina Olivia McSwain and the new Miss Teen of Georgia Sarah Mooney, both of whom will be vying for my title in November 2010.