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Ambitious students, not Barbies, compete in event, now known as Distinguished Young Women

Rehearsing for the big event, the young women in high heels, red T-shirts and assorted shorts and sweatpants swung, stepped and spun in near unison to a soaring Broadway tune, "Impossible, It's Possible."

Emma DelMonte, 16, from Analy High School, turned to her right, then realized she should have gone left, wobbled briefly and reversed course.

"I usually struggle with everything," she said a few minutes later, before skipping off with a smile across a Petaluma dance studio, carrying with her a passel of evolving dreams that includes careers in engineering or architecture.

Miss Sonoma County 2012

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DelMonte is one of 10 Sonoma County high school junior girls competing Saturday in Rohnert Park as part of a 54-year-old national scholarship program that until recently was called Junior Miss.

It's an entirely separate entity from last week's Miss Sonoma County contest. That event, though it also offers scholarships, is tied to the Miss America beauty pageant and is for young women 17 to 24.

The name Junior Miss evoked the era of the program's founding, one of bobby-socks, pin-curl hairdos and, for girls, more limited aspirations. Though rich in fond memories, the name had become as dusty as the dance studio's old record player, and so it was changed this year to Distinguished Young Women.

Any high school junior can enter the contest, which judges girls in categories ranging from scholastics to self-expression. They vie for scholarships worth about $3,000 locally and thousands more at the state and national levels. And they often harbor sky-high ambitions.

Still, the moniker Junior Miss -- even organizers and contestants often still call it that -- has long echoes.

Many people she knows confuse the event with a beauty pageant, said Maria Carrillo High School's Brynna Thigpen, 16, whose sights are set on a future involving biology.

"I keep having to set them straight," Thigpen said, after rehearsing a dance choreographed to "The Hand Jive," a song from the hit film and musical "Grease."


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