This June, Mobile’s celebration of the nation’s best and brightest young women will still go on, despite concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Distinguished Young Women National Final is going digital!”
That message, broadcast via social media, revealed that one of the city’s signature events wouldn’t be another casualty of the coronavirus. The former America’s Junior Miss will still honor the top high school representative from each state — as it has since 1958 — and award more than $100,000 in scholarships during its culminating events, June 25-27.
But, pursuant to the new rules for public gatherings, the Distinguished Young Women has had to find a way to engage through screens and speakers, instead of hugs and hands held. And it’s had to find a way to engender the esprit de corps that benefits the participants year-in, year-out.
“The most personally impactful part of this program is the 50 girls coming together, meeting and connecting with one another and forging relationships,” said DYW Executive Director Kendra Haskins. “And that extends to the host families I talk to every year, the community service we do and the volunteers who look forward to this so much.
“There are so many pieces that make the National Finals so incredibly special.”
Traditionally, the state representatives — all high school seniors — arrive in Mobile two weeks before the climactic two-day preliminaries and Saturday finale, where they compete in categories that measure scholastics, self-expression, physical fitness, talent and interviewing skills. The young women stay with host families, and participate in workshops, area tours, social events and a variety of fun challenges, such as the oyster-eating contest at Wintzell’s in downtown.
This year, the young women will submit videos for each National Finals category. The five judges will undertake their jobs though video interface.
Usually, anyone wishing to attend the events at the Mobile Civic Center Theater must buy a ticket. Or, they can pay to watch from home through Distinguished Young Women website.
But not this year. For 2020, the DYW will broadcast the three-night virtual showcase on its website free of charge. The website address: distinguishedyw.org.
Haskins said that the DYW is set to put on a tremendous show. The new format offers plenty of challenges, but it provides an “interesting opportunity,” too, she said.
“We definitely want to encourage Mobilians to reintroduce themselves to this program,” Haskins said. “So much has changed, and the levels of ability of these girls are just off the charts. If you grew up knowing what Junior Miss was, you haven’t seen what it is now.”
Haskins said the DYW will still present opportunities in June for the state representatives to foster relationships with the greater community. For example, the reigning Distinguished Young Woman of America, Dora Guo of Illinois, has been in contact with her fellow 2019 participants, each of whom is producing a video that will be compiled into a greater message for this year’s representatives.
“I want to tell them that what has happened does not take away the achievements they’ve already made,” said Guo, who is finishing up her first year at Yale University. “The intelligence, kindness and compassion that makes them so worthy are still there. And we are always going to persevere to show them that they are worthy.”
In all, Guo received $32,000 in scholarships during the 2019 National Finals, and would currently be gearing up for her triumphant return to Mobile to crown the next Distinguished Young Woman of America. Hopefully, she said, that can still happen, just at a later date.
“I greatly look forward to coming back to Mobile,” she said. “It’s such a wonderful city.”
Indeed, Haskins said the plan is to still bring this year’s representatives to Mobile to stay with host families, enjoy the sights and even scarf down their fill of oysters — it will just have to be at a date when it’s safe to do so.