Miss America 2014 Nina Davuluri spoke to a selected group of students on campus Oct. 22, followed by a presentation in Hendrix Theatre. Davuluri urged her audience to celebrate diversity, while sharing her own experiences with cultural stereotypes. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Former Miss America brings diversity message to campus

Oct. 23, 2014

By Grace Haskin
ECU News Services

Nina Davuluri, Miss America 2014, challenged East Carolina University students to celebrate their diversity – whatever that may be – and to be accepting of others.

Davuluri, who spoke Oct. 22 in Hendrix Theatre, is the first Indian-American and second Asian-American to hold the Miss America title. The Syracuse, New York native and daughter of Indian immigrants devoted her year of service to a platform of “Celebrating Diversity through Cultural Competency.”

“Everyone has a story, regardless of where they come from,” said Davuluri. “It’s not about agreeing with one another, or all believing the same thing. It’s about finding an understanding between all cultures and being able to communicate in an open and honest manner.”

At the Diwali festival on the ECU brickyard, Priya Birdi examines the table on which Diya lamps illustrate light replacing darkness.
Growing up as the only Indian-American in her school, Davuluri spoke about being harassed as a child because of her race and religion and the stereotypes she still faces today. “I’ve been called everything from Miss 7-Eleven to a terrorist,” she said, challenging the audience to think about how they want to be remembered.

“Your words have power. Any time you speak, you are influencing someone.”

Sonia Kaur, the founder and co-president of the Indian Student Association (ISA), said she felt inspired by Davuluri’s lecture. “Our whole ISA board was sitting there nodding while she spoke, because we could all relate to the stereotypes she talked about,” Kaur said.

Davuluri has been living out of her suitcase since she was crowned last September and has logged over 240,000 miles worldwide to promote her platform. She spoke candidly about the Miss America competition and the not-so glamorous aspects of it. “Everyone wants to win Miss America, but not everyone wants the job of being Miss America,” she said.

The Residence Hall Association and elementary education students met with Davuluri earlier in the day to talk about diversity, cultural competency and anti-bullying efforts. “The students also really appreciated her discussion on interviewing skills and how to be yourself and capitalize on things that make you unique,” said Melissa Haithcox-Dennis, director of the Ledonia Wright Cultural Center.

In September, Davuluri crowned Kira Kazantsev as Miss America 2015 and is now applying to graduate schools to start an MBA program. In the future, she sees herself working in the political arena and continuing to promote cultural awareness and diversity.

Following Davuluri’s lecture, the ISA celebrated Diwali in the Mendenhall Student Center brick-yard. Diwali, also known as Festival of Lights, is a traditional Indian celebration which signifies the victory of light over darkness.

“Diwali celebrates luck and fortune,” said Leela Goel, an EC scholar and junior at ECU. “It is one of the major holidays in India.”

The festivities included traditional Indian crafts, food, music and dancing.

The Ledonia Wright Cultural Center and the ISA co-sponsored the event, which was the largest Diwali festival ever celebrated on ECU’s campus. Organizers plan to make the celebration an annual event.

Dancers perform to traditional Indian music during the Diwali festival on campus.