Let me paint a picture. You’ve thought and worked long and hard to understand who you are and what you’ll pursue. Finally able to articulate what makes you tick, they say “Really? I pegged you as a [insert stereotypical phrase here] person.”

(Drags self on floor back to drawing board.)

When who we are is not what society sees in us, do we give up or proceed? This was my dilemma for the past year.

I became a local titleholder in the Miss America program the weekend college final exams ended in May 2018. Shocked to have the new opportunity, I set three goals to frame my year of service: 1) Create an Instagram to inspire others to do kind acts and reach 1,000 followers; 2) Participate in at least 20 community events; 3) Complete 200 hours of community service. Little did I know, this was the easy part. I met my first two goals and more than doubled my third goal. The hard part was everything else.

I quickly realized I was on my own. My program director was constantly busy, my coach had prior commitments, I had limited funds, no car, a packed schedule, no prior experience in the program, and my usual support system was far away.

I was on an emotional roller coaster trying to balance Miss Utah candidacy, course work, leadership roles, a prestigious internship, and a romantic relationship. Life felt hectic. I often wondered if the things I was pursuing were worth it.

Visiting home for Christmas reset my mind. I was ready to win when Miss Utah week arrived.

The exhausting week resurfaced the things that made me a little too different. The first signal was the private interview.

As I stood in front of the panel of judges, they spent at least half of the short interview shooting off questions similar to “How do you feel about immigrants considering the huge toll they put on our system? Why should we take in more people when the people here are overburdening us?”

I walked away confidently, having answered every difficult question clearly and calmly. Then, I remembered my first name was Spanish and my Filipino last name looked Spanish. Many people who don’t know me assume this means I am Latina.

The next signals were the talent and evening gown portions. As I started my 90-second solo with ancient Hawaiian culture, I looked at the panel of judges. I noticed that half of them weren’t interested. Things made more sense when a classical pianist and a ballet dancer won the talent award that night — talents some consider more noble and elegant.

The judges paid a little more attention when I walked out in my evening gown. But when someone else won the award that night, I remembered mine was the gown that, though stunning, was most modest.

Many of the 53 beautiful and accomplished candidates won awards that week, but I did not. You may wonder if it was lack of training, aging out of the competition, wearing a taboo engagement ring, being one of the few women of color, or choosing to live my faith by wearing sleeves throughout the competition. I’ve wondered the same thing.

However, what lingers is a realization of what I gained before the competition ended — a network of women ready to effect lasting change in our community, a feeling of satisfaction for surpassing all of my goals, and most of all, a sense of increased strength as I lived my truths.

We will all have moments in life when who we believe we are does not match what society sees in us. Though we may feel defeated or at odds with ourselves, these are opportunities to strengthen ourselves and move forward in living our truth. It will bring happiness more than anything else in life, even a bright twinkling crown.

The great minds and leaders in history did not achieve their goals by letting society dictate which life experience was a failure or a success.

Maya Angelou once said, “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

Go and be amazing.

Lluvia Koali Santiago

Lluvia Koali Santiago, Orem, is a presidential intern for inclusion and diversity at Utah Valley University and will receive a bachelor’s degree in communications in spring 2020.