A Miss America State Titleholder Story: Miss Utah 2009 Whitney Merrifield
The oldest of seven children, Miss Utah 2009 Whitney Merrifield first considered competing in the Miss America program when a close friend told her she should join. For Whitney, the deciding factor was a chance to win the $3,000 scholarship that would be awarded to the winner of Miss Utah County.
A student in a Spanish immersion program, Whitney originally competed with the platform “Building bridges of cultural understanding” when she saw the divide between the few Hispanic students and the rest of her mostly white high school. But, her platform changed when a student at her school committed suicide.
Though she didn’t personally know the student, she says that watching the way the ensuing emotions rippled through the community was powerful and touching. The effects of suicide, and Utah’s unusually high youth suicide rate (nearly one young person every 11 days, according to a 2006 report) prompted Whitney to partner with “Be the Change Utah”, a program that aims to create unity and break down stereotypes, in hopes of bringing the number down. Whitney’s original and revised programs have the same goal: forging connections that make people feel safe and included in their school and community.
The lessons she learned as Miss Utah 2009 and as the ambassador for “Be the Change Utah”—raising large sums of money, working with different personalities, and convincing people that her platform was worth contributing to—proved invaluable when she began working on a documentary with the communications program at Brigham Young University, where she was a junior, in 2012.
Her now-husband was on a mission with the Church of Latter Day Saints in Cambodia, and Whitney, visiting him, says she spent the entire trip looking for a reason to come back to the country that had fascinated her since childhood. She found that purpose in Botevy Keo and Vanneth Ouk, two genocide survivors running the Cambodian and International Children Friend Organization– an orphanage for abandoned children that, Whitney says, is more like a family than an institution.
The orphanage, which was on the verge of closing when Whitney and her team arrived to film Guarding the Bamboo Forest, now has multiple private donors who support the mission of rebuilding the Cambodian economy and culture by nurturing its young people.
Guarding the Bamboo Forest was her “after-pageant platform”—a natural extension of her love of storytelling and the skills and confidence she gained as Miss Utah. The project was also possible in part because of the scholarship money she won competing in the Miss America program. Although the film took almost two years to complete, Whitney still graduated from BYU in four years by taking extra classes each semester without worrying about finances.
For Whitney, the Miss America Organization is much more than just a competition to earn scholarships. Whitney sees the two weeks leading up to the national competition as some of the most trying and eye-opening times of her life. Getting through competition gave her the confidence to tackle any project or challenge she encountered because she felt she had already done the hardest part. Whitney said, the Miss Utah competition provided her training, polish, and a well-roundedness that is difficult for a young woman in Utah to come by on her own.
Now, Whitney is an expert in the very skills she gained as Miss Utah 2009. She has acted as the public relations specialist and brand ambassador for the Xi3 Piston console, and is the newsroom director, video producer, and host of LDS.net’s Mormon Minute. Most recently, she became the PR & Content Specialist for THE VOID, a virtual reality gaming experience in Lindon, Utah, her hometown, where she combines her love of technology with her natural charm and her favorite hobby: telling stories.
The Miss America Organization provides quality scholarship assistance to young women across the United States. To get involved or to donate, visit www.MissAmerica.org.
About The Miss America Organization
The Miss America Organization, a 501(c)4 non-profit organization, is the nation’s leading advocate for women’s education and the largest provider of scholarship assistance to young women in the United States, awarding millions of dollars annually. The Miss America Organization is comprised of 52 licensed organizations, including all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Miss America contestants contribute tens of thousands of community service hours annually and have raised over $13 million for Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and Miss America scholarships since 2007.
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