Thelina Smith, Miss Black Utah USA, strives for science education

Story and photo by LORIEN HARKER

On the Miss Black USA pageant website there is a statement that reads, “It’s time to redefine what it means to be a courageous, compassionate [and] CONFIDENT black woman today. We’ve got obstacles to overcome and stereotypes to smash. Sound like your kind of revolution? Join the movement.”

Thelina Smith has got some smashing of her own to do.


Smith competing for the title of Miss Pioneer Valley in August 2012.

Smith is the current reigning Miss Black Utah USA. She also is a junior at the University of Utah who is studying biomedical engineering with an emphasis in biomaterials and leadership studies.

Smith is extremely busy with duties of the crown and sash, such as being an advocate for heart health while promoting her own platform. However, she makes sure to be involved with her studies. Smith started the first chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at the U, reactivated the U’s Society of Women Engineers and is a biomedical engineering ambassador for the College of Engineering.

As a requirement for her title, Smith also promotes a platform, or an issue she feels needs to be addressed within the community. Smith says her platform, “Engineering the Leaders of Tomorrow, Because Tomorrow Matters Today,” is meant to “motivate minorities and underrepresented students to engage in STEM education.”

Smith says her platform has three goals. First, to reach out to the community, specifically women, through educating them on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. Second is to “continue to charter diverse student organizations throughout Utah that serve to recruit and retain minority and underrepresented students in STEM fields.” And third, she wants to “establish a council” to mentor the youth she hopes to recruit into math and science education.

“I feel that this pageant allows me to take my efforts to the next level,” Smith says in an email interview. “I want to challenge young ladies to think about what it is to be beautiful and smart and to capture the attention of young men to let them know they can have a future within STEM education.”

Smith has also been working on partnering with the National Society of Black Engineers, The Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, The American Indian Science and Engineering Society, and the Society of Women Engineers, of which she has been an active participant. Smith wants to partner with these societies to form a council called STEM-Diversity Industry Advisory Council.  This council would include “community leaders and local STEM company representatives that will [oversee] the support of these student chapters,” Smith says.

Despite her full schedule, Smith is making time to run for Miss Black USA in Washington, D.C., in August 2013.

Although there have been women of color to win larger national and international pageants, Smith doesn’t feel women of color are being represented to their full potential within these programs.

 “I wouldn’t consider myself ‘marginalized’ in pageantry but rather ‘underrepresented.’ There have been women of color to capture the crown as Miss America, Miss USA, Miss Universe, [but] this is still relatively a small number in comparison to the number of years that these organizations have existed,” Smith says.

Lana Thompkins, the public relations spokeswoman for Miss Black USA, says in an email interview that the Miss Black USA is necessary because women of color do not feel beautiful with today’s standards of beauty.

 “Self-esteem is the core of a woman’s belief in herself. Miss Black USA sets our own standards of beauty,” Thompkins says.

African-American women have been faced with many stereotypes, Thompkins says, and the purpose of the Miss Black USA pageant is to disprove these stereotypes.

“While 80% of Miss Black USA contestants are graduates or professionals and represent a new generation, we are often negatively typecast, demeaned, and portrayed in the media and in the workplace as ‘broken,’ ‘unattractive,’ ‘alone,’ ‘hard to work with,”’ and even ‘violent,’” Thompkins says.

Raychellene Talbot, the wardrobe coordinator for Miss Utah under the Miss America Organization, feels that Miss Utah has a “melting pot of pageant girls” despite the fact that there has yet to be an African-American Miss Utah.

“We have so many different contestants at the local and state level. I know Miss Utah Outstanding Teen 2011 had 6 different nationalities,” Talbot says.

The Miss Black USA pageant was founded in 1986 by Karen Arrington. The scholarship program boasts a two-year tuition scholarship to Miles College, a historically black college in Fairfield, Ala.  The scholarship also awards a fully furnished apartment close to campus. If contestants such as Smith win and choose not to attend Miles College, they do not receive the housing benefits.

Women who have competed for the title of Miss Black USA have gone on to win titles within the Miss USA organization. Chenoa Greene, Miss Black New Jersey 2007, went on to become Miss New Jersey USA in 2008.

Thelina Smith says, “The Miss Black USA pageant is a showcase of women who otherwise may have been overlooked.”

MESA: Representing the underrepresented


Think for a moment about all the educational programs being offered to students. Now think about the programs that are specifically aimed toward underrepresented populations, ethnic minorities and women. If you cannot think of any then you have not heard of MESA: the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Program.

This national program helps ethnic minority and female students achieve educational goals by providing them with an array of educational and financial opportunities as well as support. Although MESA helps all of these students, Hispanic and Latino/Latina students in particular have seen the advantages of being in the program.

The number of Hispanic students in MESA has steadily increased over the years. According to the MESA 2007 Fall Manual, Utah has 114 schools that implement the program. Hispanic students involved in MESA increased from 1,413 last year to 1,653. Although it is not a large increase, it is a significant growth. The specific reason for the increase of Hispanic participants in the program is unknown – however it is proof that the program is a positive influence on Hispanic students.

Furthermore, Hispanic students have seen for themselves the results and progress that can take place with being a member of MESA. Jhoanna Quezada and Marily Hernandez, 8th-grade students from Brockbank Junior High, said other students who are not involved in the program should definitely consider it. “It can [help] keep your grades up. It helps our nationality grow and it gives Hispanics a better image,” Quezada said.

Social networking is another added benefit for younger students. “You get to interact with other schools and it helps different cultures work together,” Hernandez said.

Dr. Lyn Burningham, the Alternative Language Services Consultant and the director of MESA at the Jordan School District, said the students are usually exposed to two stages of language acquisition in the program, cognitive academic language proficiency and basic interpersonal communication skills. With exposure to academic language, Burningham said, students tend to feel less marginalized and more comfortable in social settings.

The program offers a variety of activities that allow the students to learn social skills. Some of the activities include monthly meetings, field trips to universities, science fair projects and annual contests, such as MESA Day.

This year, MESA Day for junior high students in the Granite district was held March 19 at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley City, but the location for this event varies by year and by district. During the event, students from all 16 middle schools participated in six activities:  the egg drop, krypto, trebuchet, super slinger, surprise and the mystery activity. These activities are designed to challenge the students to use math, engineering and science education to complete the specific objectives of the competition.

In addition, MESA introduces students to large corporations that are actively involved in the program’s industry advisory council, such as L-3 Communications, ATK Launch Systems Group and Intermountain Health Care. When students interact with these large companies, it provides these students with a possible vision of their future, as well as exposes them to many types of opportunities such as scholarships and internships as well.

MESA also helps other students who may not be interested in math, engineering, or science. Ayleen Velez, the TBD department manager of Nordstrom, was a member of MESA throughout junior high and high school.

“They taught me a lot of public speaking skills, interviewing skills, and how to be myself and open in public and show charisma,” Velez said.

She obtained a scholarship through the program and although she decided to major in interpersonal communication. “I feel like it really helped me establish who I am and I use a lot of the skills they taught me,” Velez said. She also believes MESA assists Hispanic students in cases where parents do not have the knowledge of how the school system works or are not able to teach their children how to get into college.

Moreover, the program assists with SAT/ACT preparation, provides career counseling and mentoring and tutoring sessions. Because students are expected to obtain good grades in order to stay in the program, MESA tracks their grades and progress. Most students join the program when they first enter junior high either through recruitment at registration or through a referral from a math or science teacher. Other students join because their friends are in it or because their siblings were in it. Burningham said the earlier students join the program the better because they can take full advantage of MESA and its benefits.

In fact, the Granite district has begun implementing MESA into elementary schools. Currently seven elementary schools administer the program: Jackling, Academy, Monroe, Silver Hills, Stansbury, Wright and Fox Hills. Charlene Lui, the director of MESA and Education Equity for the Granite district, said it hopes to obtain more funding so eventually all of the elementary schools will have MESA.

“It’s a great learning environment for kids to be in and I feel like it helps them to be more well-rounded,” Velez said.

According to the fall manual, the MESA vision is to provide educational opportunities to all ethnic minority and female students through this program and its partnership with higher education and business industries. “It helps students solidify academic achievement and also provides them with a sense of belonging,” Lui said. The Utah MESA program has been helping the underrepresented population for 20 years.

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