She was founder and president of Rutgers’ She’s the First chapter, head chairwoman of the Douglass Orientation Committee and a member of the Rutgers University Dance Team before she was crowned Miss New Jersey on June 14.
Though Cierra Kaler-Jones is about to be a senior in college, she will spend the first two weeks of the fall semester doing something a bit different from meeting new professors and looking over syllabi for classes. She will be in Atlantic City competing for the title of Miss America.
But she would not have received the title if not for her parents, who encouraged her to compete once more after receiving third runner up in last year’s competition.
When she won, Kaler-Jones said her dad was crying and her mom could not speak in full sentences.
The 21-year-old, hailing from Galloway Township, got her start in pageantry at the age of 17.
Her home lies just outside of Atlantic City, where Miss America originated, so Kaler-Jones said the pageant world was always right in her backyard.
“I remember there being Miss Americas and Miss New Jerseys who would come to my elementary school, and they would read to us and they would sign autographs and they were such role models for me at that time, and I knew when I grew up I wanted to be of those role models,” she said.
Kaler-Jones won the first county pageant she competed in four years ago.
“So after four years of hard work, dedication, lots of sweat and a lot of tears, I am now Miss New Jersey,” she said.
Kaler-Jones made history with this win, as the second minority Miss New Jersey ever.
Though a lot of people seem to feel uncomfortable talking about race, Kaler-Jones made a point of visiting at-risk, low-income urban areas to talk about leadership and finding their sense of self-identity. That’s where she got her platform, called “Empowering Today’s Youth Through Arts Education.”¬
Many spectators assume pageants are all about the glitz and glamour, but Kaler-Jones said what people do not see is the time the girls spend promoting their platforms and the causes they care about, in addition to earning scholarship money and intangible skills.
The Miss America Organization is the largest provider of scholarships for young women, and because of her involvement with the pageant, she will graduate from Rutgers debt-free.
A large bonus aside from the scholarship money is the confidence she has earned through the process — confidence that has made her successful coming out of any internship or job interview.
“I think that if you can go on stage in a swimsuit and heels, you can kind of do anything,” she said. “I can really conquer the world because of the skills that I’ve gained through competing in pageants.”
In addition, there is a sisterhood and friendship component to pageants that is difficult for those outside of the pageant world to understand.
“I competed against 23 extremely articulate, intelligent, talented, wonderful young women,” she said. “You become so close with these young women because you have this common goal in mind.”
Since winning the title of Miss New Jersey, Kaler-Jones has never been more exhausted in her life. She wakes up early to get a workout in with her trainer, and afterward, she either visits sponsors or makes appearances.
“You’re up running 24/7, [you] always have to be on, always have to smiling, always have to be excited,” she said. “But that’s the kind of person I am anyway.”
Between now and the Miss America pageant in September, Kaler-Jones will be going to Orlando for a week for Miss America’s Outstanding Teen pageant, which is a program in which 13 to 17-year-olds compete for a national title.
In August, she will spend ten days in India presenting an independent research project called “Using Visual and Performing Arts as a Strategy to Empower Economically Disadvantaged Girls.”
Four years ago, Kaler-Jones started a non-profit called “The Arts Empowerment Project.” She constructed a curriculum of arts-based workshops for young girls to teach them about leadership through the lens of art.
She has to prepare for Miss America as much as she can now so that she does not have to worry as much during the weeks she plans to be away.
In one word, Kaler-Jones used “humbled” to describe the feeling of being crowned Miss New Jersey.
“I know what it feels like to be one of the 23 girls standing in the back,” she said. “And I say this completely candidly, any one of those 23 girls could have went and been Miss New Jersey and done a tremendous job but for me to have this title … and to be that face and be a representative is truly humbling because not every girl gets that opportunity.”
Though any one of those girls could have won the crown, Kaler-Jones attributes her success to the fact that she is real and relatable.
She spoke of coming from humble beginnings, without a lot of money. She is a nerd and a geek and does not come from a nuclear family, and she was unapologetic about all of these facts in front of the judges.
“I think the judges really related to the fact that I was real and that I was honest,” she said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published online on June 26, 2014.