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A Family’s Journey to Miss Teen USA

Local Parsippany Teen Wins Miss Teen USA 2023 Title

PARSIPPANY — “..And Miss Teen USA 2023 is….” Those words seemed to hang in the air forever among the bright lights of the Grand Sierra Resort’s grand ballroom and auditorium in Reno, Nevada, that September evening in 2023 as Barbara and I held hands and closed our eyes… “Miss Teen New Jersey, UmaSofia Srivastava”! Time seemed to stop, and then there was sheer pandemonium. The music, cheers, and chaos in the auditorium ensued around us as we instinctively stood up and looked up at the jumbotron, part in disbelief, joy part… there she was, our daughter, with tears flowing down her beautiful face, the Hope crown being placed on her head with a gaggle of young women obscuring her from our view. Here she came, so close but yet so far, larger than life on the big screen among the din, the Miss Teen USA sash around her, walking down centerstage. Everything else is a blur of TV cameras, bright lights, and confetti.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” – Lao Tzu. Our journey from an ordinary immigrant family culminating into this unusual happenstance began in the Fall of 2021 when our daughter, 14, saw an ad for the Miss Teen USA pageant. She was charmed by the happy picture of all the smiling young women swarming to support the winner. Being an only child of mixed heritage, of Indian and Mexican parents (what are the odds?), she had had a challenging path fitting in oftentimes throughout her young life, belonging to both cultures, but not quite, her American-ness, sometimes a plus sometimes not, among the immigrant gatherings and get-togethers, not quite one or the other.

She asked us if she could participate in the New Jersey contest next April 2022 to see what it was like to feel the sisterhood and support showcased, pointedly asking, “Who will she be?” What was the deciding factor for us, you may wonder? Hard to believe, but it was the fact that the contest was being held at the Parsippany Hilton, a stone’s throw from our home. Knowing nothing of pageants, alongside her wanting to try yet another new thing, sealed the deal.

Seeing her with the Morris County sash among all the girls having fun was fun for us. When it all ended, she was declared the First Runner Up, one of the youngest at the contest in 2022. We were so happy to see her having fun. As it turned out, this event was among the many where UmaSofia stepped out of her comfort zone and leaned into the changes and challenges she encountered in 2022. What was amazing about this experience was not what she lost or won but how she rose to each challenge and the people she encountered, as did we, as her parents. I must admit, many stereotypes were broken in my and Barbara’s minds, having never experienced anything like this before but for an occasional story on the news or a casual viewing on TV.

When 2023 came around, we talked as a family to see if she wanted to take another gander at this “pageant thing.” The chance to see her friends, some of whom had competed for many years, encouragement, urging, and support from special mentors and strong and accomplished women who came in contact with her during the 2022 event was a big factor. In addition, the venue was too good to pass up – you might have guessed it, The Parsippany Hilton! This time, the result was, shall we say, a bit different.

Seeing our daughter exchange her Morris County Teen sash for the one that proclaimed “Miss Teen New Jersey” was truly surreal. New Jersey has been our home all her life, a big part of our family story. Whether it was walking The Green in Morristown, strolling in Central Park of Morris County with our dogs, teaching her to ride her bike, running behind her as she toothlessly rode, leaving me in the dust, or just driving down Ridgedale Avenue, either Barbara or I would have ever conjured up the thought that our daughter would one day represent not just Morris County but our home state of New Jersey on the national stage! The months that followed that win as Miss Teen New Jersey USA 2023 were a balancing act of academics and her duties, crisscrossing the entire state of New Jersey for charity events, parades, concerts, and fashion events, some alongside the newly crowned Miss New Jersey, some by her lonesome, always with us in tow just out of sight.

It has been a true privilege for us as a family to experience everything together as she served and fulfilled her duties as Miss Teen New Jersey USA for those months. Our town, county, and the great State of New Jersey deserve to be called among the very best in America to raise a family. The majestic statehouse and the proclamation, the hospitality of the New Jersey Senate, the July 4th parades, and various charity events she participated in have made truly special memories for our family and her.

Before we knew it, the months between April and September of 2023 sped by, and the national competition in Reno, Nevada, was looming. Competing against other equally accomplished young women, all winners of their states, quite a few of them in college, drove her to commit to a discipline of physical fitness, intense study sessions preparing for the grueling personal interview, all the while keeping up with her excellent academic record, extra-curricular activities and to re-double her efforts towards her charity work and charities close to her personal beliefs and passions, something she has been doing since she was very young, way before any pageant. She credits the nickname “Baby Jaguar” I call her as the inspiration for writing and illustrating her book “The White Jaguar,” but she is giving me too much credit. The truth is her drive; her capabilities are all her own, shaped by the values we try to live in our home. Between her book coming out and all the events across the great state of New Jersey and visiting other pageants, the period of her Miss Teen New Jersey USA 2023 reign seems a whirlwind.

In 2023, the month of September was spent in final preparations of the state costume of New Jersey (“the Honey Bee” – inspired by “Li’l Bee,” the nickname Barbara gave her as a baby), all the details that needed to be worked out. When we say pageantry is a team sport or family sport, we speak from experience. There was so much to learn about the contest and prepare to put the best foot forward to represent New Jersey on the national stage, not to mention the travel arrangements, the logistics, and everything in between.

The event in Reno was held September 26-29, 2023, at the Grand Sierra Resort in Nevada. Once the event began, we saw very little of her as the contestants were sequestered and put through an intense regimen of 4:00 a.m. wake-up time till midnight, days filled with activities that required them to be at their best. A judge is somewhere around the corner or perhaps in the crowd at every turn. The only analogy I can think of is an athletic event, where the coaches and scouts always look you over, even when you are not on the field/track/pool. It is INTENSE. For us as parents there, along with 50 other sets from each state, the worry was if she had eaten, was getting enough sleep, and was enjoying herself and having fun. Truthfully, winning/losing is not part of the equation. It never has been for us.

It was a sense of pride for us that her state costume showcased New Jersey’s state insect, the Honey Bee, and won first place, so intertwined with her personal story. Her charities were centerstage and brought awareness to her signature issues: childhood education for underprivileged children through the Lotus Petal Foundation and literacy through the Bridge of Books Foundation, a charity right here in our home state of New Jersey. Her book “The White Jaguar” becoming a bestseller was honestly icing on the cake.

With a win at any competition comes the statisticians. The pageant world, as we came to find out, is no different: first-ever crown for New Jersey in the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA pageant history, first-ever winner where both parents are immigrants from completely different cultures (Indian and Mexican), first winner, to speak multiple languages, first-ever winner of National costume and Miss Teen USA crown at the same event from the same state ever…. For Barbara and I, she is the only, nothing else.

Her reign as Miss Teen USA now has brought on even bigger responsibilities and a stage bigger than we could have ever imagined. The honor and privilege of having “USA” emblazoned on anything brings a special meaning to any award and responsibility, which we see as her parents, up close and personal. More than anything, we have lost count of how many times people of all ages of mixed heritage, Indian, Mexican, Latin-American, and every combination one can think of, have connected with her and thanked her (and us) for “representing” them for being “someone who looks like me.” Seeing the countless kids who come up to her as she tours schools, reads her book, and speaks at symposiums and conferences has given this pageant thing a whole new perspective.

As parents, we always stress on our daughter to take up every challenge with two things in mind – what you learn from it and what you are willing to sacrifice for it. The same goes for us. Speaking as parents, what we learned was that, more than anything, this contest is anything but merely about looks. It is genuinely about commitment, service, and sacrifice, not just from the competing young women but also from the family. The time and resource commitment is quite substantial and requires a lot of sacrifice from the young women and, yes, from the parents and loved ones.

The people we met as a family have been amazing, kind and caring. The sisterhood among these young women is truly special, win or lose. Past winners, contestants, judges, and mentors genuinely care about each other and are willing to help and support each other.

It is said, “To each his own,” and I guess even in this case, it is true. There are no right or wrong answers, and the pageant world may not be for everyone. We never thought this would be a chapter in our American story. Having said that, in the end, for us, it has been an amazing and humbling experience, and for our daughter, perhaps, personally experiencing that advertisement that now showcases her image about meeting a challenge, finding purpose and sisterhood, with the Hope Crown on her head in that image, something she will carry with her for the rest of her life, long after her reign as Miss Teen USA 2023 is over.

Our story is many things: an immigrant story of opportunities, love, and family. It is a single strand in the beautiful fabric of our nation, The United States of America.

UmaSofia Srivastava

UmaSofia Srivastava is the first Mexican-Indian Miss Teen USA and the first contestant from New Jersey to win Miss Teen USA. She is 16 years old and a current high school junior. One day, UmaSofia hopes to become a UN ambassador.

She works with the Lotus Petal Foundation to help underprivileged children in India receive a well-rounded education, proper nutrition, and healthcare. UmaSofia also collected over 1000 books for the Bridge of Books Foundation to donate to inner-city kids in New Jersey. She authored and illustrated her book, The White Jaguar, to inspire people of all ages to embrace what makes them unique. Throughout the book, there are four languages: English, Spanish, Hindi, and French – all of which she speaks.

UmaSofia is a pianist and runs her blog, That’s Fan Behavior, where she writes about her experience as a woman of color and current events. UmaSofia is the co-founder of the Diversity & Inclusion campaign at her school, a Kind Campaign leader, and participates in Mock Trial and Model UN.

This story was written by Sanjay Srivastava

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Parsippany Focus welcomes residents to submit articles for publication. Please note that the opinions and views expressed in these articles may not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.
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