PRINCETON: University student takes title of Miss New Jersey

By Payal Marathe, Special to the Packet Media Group
   Princeton University can now add Miss New Jersey to its list of accomplished students.
   Cara McCollum, who recently finished her junior year at the university, was crowned Miss New Jersey on Saturday night. She won an $11,000 scholarship and the chance to compete at the Miss America pageant later this year.
   Ms. McCollum said she is proud to represent the Garden State and is excited about her new role as a civic leader.
   The Miss New Jersey Education Foundation provides scholarships to young women passionate about social issues. Ms. McCollum said it was this feature of the pageant that compelled her to compete, first for the title of Miss Island Resort and then for Miss New Jersey.
   Her platform, “giving the gift of reading,” is a community service effort to encourage literacy in both adults and children, said Kristi Brown, director of the local Miss Island Resort pageant.
   In Ms. McCollum’s junior year of high school in Arkansas, she began the Birthday Book project, a charity donating books to underprivileged children in schools and hospitals on their birthdays.
   ”Two years into my time at Princeton University, I realized I wasn’t as involved in the community as I’d like — I didn’t have the connection necessary to bring the charity I started in high school to New Jersey,” Ms. McCollum said.
   She added that the Miss New Jersey organization provides a strong support system so she can raise awareness of her charity throughout her reign.
   In addition to preparing for the Miss America pageant over the next three months, Ms. McCollum said she plans on being “a very active Miss New Jersey.” She said she is looking forward to traveling through the state, reading to children and meeting with civic groups to promote her literacy platform.
   Ms. Brown added that being Miss New Jersey would be a full-time job, since Ms. McCollum will probably be visiting schools or children’s hospitals three times a week while simultaneously meeting with designers, practicing a new piano piece and training with interview coaches in anticipation of her next competition.
   ”It’s not all the glitter and glamour that one would expect,” Ms. Brown said.
   Because being Miss New Jersey and being a senior at Princeton are both “big jobs,” Ms. McCollum said she is taking a year off from her undergraduate education so she can take full-advantage of both experiences one at a time.
   At Princeton, Ms. McCollum is an English major and writer for the Princeton Alumni Weekly. She hopes to one day become a journalist or writer specializing in creative non-fiction.
   Looking ahead at the next year, Ms. McCollum said she is going into the Miss America contest without extravagant expectations because she has limited pageant experience — Miss Island Resort and Miss New Jersey are the only two on her resume.
   Still, Miss New Jersey has not placed in the top 15 at a Miss America pageant in a long time, she said, adding that it would be a “fun goal” to try to achieve this ranking.
   The Miss America pageant will take place in Atlantic City, which Ms. McCollum said would be a great boost to the state’s economy and morale, especially given the recent tragedy surrounding Hurricane Sandy.
   This year marked the 80th anniversary of the Miss New Jersey pageant, which made winning an even more special treat, Ms. McCollum said.