University of Vermont

With Award-Winning Platform, Nursing Student to Compete for Miss America Title

Jeanelle Achee
Jeanelle Achee: Truman Scholar, Miss Vermont 2013 and, according to Dean Patricia Prelock, “an exceptional young woman who represents all that we hope for in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences -- someone who really does make a difference for the health and wellbeing of others." (Photo: Sally McCay)

Three days into her senior year Jeanelle Achee, dedicated nursing major and 2013 Truman Scholar, is hoping to press pause on her academic career, to be resumed in a year. Not without some ambivalence. “My teachers put in so much time that I want to give them back the best that I have,” she says, “but on the other hand, it’s Miss America, it’s once in a lifetime.”

Achee, in the span of a few months, has already garnered some rare achievements. In April she was named a Harry S. Truman Scholar, one of 62 students nationally to win this highly competitive award, which recognizes and supports students preparing for careers in public service, including up to $30,000 in financial support for graduate study and leadership training. Then in June she was crowned Miss Vermont.

With the support of nursing faculty who are helping facilitate Achee’s time out of class, she’s currently in Atlantic City where preliminary Miss America competition begins on Sept. 10 -- if she continues on her roll of success and makes it to the final 15, Achee will compete in the live televised pageant on Sept. 15 at 9 p.m. on ABC.  

Serving survivors

A native Vermonter from Rochester (only residency is required to compete for the state title), paying her own way through college, Achee began competing in pageants as a means of earning scholarships. She says having to develop a platform of advocacy and education about a cause that reflects her values was crucial to her winning the Truman award. But while pageant prep may have helped her articulate her mission, in truth, her life over the last several years (“since I had autonomy”) has been moving her toward receiving the Truman.

Achee has volunteered more than 3,000 hours as a certified crisis counselor for the nonprofit HOPE Works hotline. As a survivor of sexual violence herself, her cause is to advocate for other survivors and to promote healthy relationships.

“That’s what inspired me to work in this area and is really the fire that keeps me dedicated to this,” she says. As part of her prevention efforts for children, Achee created a leadership weekend for Girl Scouts Beyond Bars, an empowerment program for young girls who have a parent in prison.

Her commitment, in fact, has become her life’s pursuit. “Nurses are in a unique position to truly help people in all areas of their lives because we have the ability to take the time to get to know patients on a deeper level,” says Achee, who plans, as part of her graduate education, to become trained to work in the emergency room as a sexual assault nurse examiner.

“Nursing is what I was meant to do, and there isn’t a better way to help survivors of sexual violence because I can cover the mental and physical aspects of the recovery process,” she says. 

Pageants and prejudice

That there might be a disconnect between her stance against sexual violence and the perception of pageants as objectifying women is an idea that Achee rejects, at least as it applies to Miss America, which this year is returning to Atlantic City from Las Vegas, in part, she says, to distance itself from beauty pageants there with different agendas.

“I would disagree that the Miss America program is a pretty contest,” Achee says. “You don’t have to have the best shape in a swimsuit or be the best singer to win. They want someone intelligent and well spoken, who cares for her platform, who is genuinely herself throughout the competition.”

In fact, Achee considers being Miss America one of the ultimate forms of service, traveling for a year (according to the organization’s website, 20,000 miles every month) to promote the pageant’s chosen charity, the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, as well as her own platform.

“I feel that I am a better person for competing,” Achee says. “I’m empowered, I’ve learned public speaking skills, how to raise money and champion a cause.”

With the Truman on her resume, a platform that’s far from performance and a solid sense of self, Achee feels she has a shot at the crown, but she’s taking it all with lighthearted equanimity.

As an overall high-achiever, she would love the “upgrade” and chance to serve as Miss America. But if it doesn’t happen, Achee likes where she is. “Good things will happen either way. I’m not concerned about that at all… and if I win, I’ll come back and have another third day as a senior.”