By Travis Stanton
"Overwhelmingly amazing" is how Marissa Whitley describes her year so far as the reigning Miss Teen USA. "It was definitely a whirlwind," said the 18-year-old beauty queen when asked about having her life changed by winning the title. As the third black Miss Teen USA, Marissa is nothing short of colorful. However, her life has not always been rhinestones and smiles. The adversity she has faced in her life only serves to make her a more deserving recipient of the crown, and an optimal spokesperson for the official cause of the Miss Teen USA Pageant.
Losing her mother to a brain aneurysm, and her father to a drive by shooting, Marissa was raised by a woman she credits for making her what she is today. "My aunt taught me that I was beautiful." Growing up the only black student in her school, was not easy for Marissa, but it has served as an impetus for her to do what she does best; prove a point. During her junior year at Glendale High School in Springfield, Missouri, Marissa began her school's diversity club. Ninety-two members strong, the organization volunteered their time to participate in the AIDS walk, the Martin Luther King walk, Habitat for Humanity, and the Boys and Girls Club. "I wanted to prove a point that you can be different and still make a difference," stated Marissa. "Even though we may not see all the different types of people that there are in the world, they still exist, and they're still making positive impacts."
Marissa is a prime example of a strong individual making positive impacts. Her year as Miss Teen USA includes more than a crown and prize package. The title of Miss Teen USA carries with it a platform, and an official cause that is very dear to Marissa. Through the Miss Universe Organization, Marissa has had the opportunity to work for causes such as PAX (Real Solutions to Gun Violence), M.A.D.D. (Mother's Against Drunk Driving) and SHiNE (Seeking Harmony in Neighborhoods Everyday). As Miss Teen USA 2001, Marissa will travel the country as an advocate for safety in schools, the official cause of Miss Teen USA.
"How many times have you seen someone get tripped in the hall, or watch a kid get made fun of, and the teachers are standing right there and don't do anything?" Marissa remembers how frustrating it was to watch kids in her high school be harassed and abused without any consequences. "I know in my school, nothing was done. And if you get made fun of every single day of your life, that eats away somewhere."
Because of her minority status, Marissa knows exactly what it's like to be made fun of. "For me, diversity wasn't there, so I never felt the same as everyone else. I felt different, and growing up, you need that security of being liked." However, as we all know, that security is not always easy to come by. "It happens every day, and people will make excuses that that's just high school, or that its just part of growing up, but it doesn't have to be."
Marissa's advice to students who know what it's like to be made fun of is simple. "Look in the mirror, and focus on today. Look in the mirror and say, 'Today's a new day, and I have today to do something with my life. I can do this.'" During her speaking engagements in schools around the country, Marissa tells students she thinks "everyone has to struggle in order to really appreciate what they have whenever they achieve something great."
"Prejudice is a definitely a learned behavior. You aren't born hating a black person or an obese person or a gay person." Despite the adversity in her life, and the color of her skin, Marissa was able to realize there is something positive about being different. "Growing into myself, I realized that different is good, and different sets you apart." She encourages all young people to be accepting of themselves, and to know that they can choose their own paths in life.
This January, Marissa will celebrate her 19th birthday, and begin her freshman year at the University of Missouri in Columbia, majoring in broadcast journalism. In talking with Marissa, I was not only extraordinarily impressed by her sincerity, but also by her sense of compassion, and her genuine desire to make a difference in any way she can. Even without her title, Marissa is a brilliant role model for young people. I am confident Miss Teen USA will finish her reign with style, elegance, and the spunky attitude that has become her trademark. She has, and continues to prove a point: Much like Marissa herself, diversity truly is a beautiful thing.