Steffani Nielson has spent the last year and a half putting her life back together.
“I was completely broken,” she said. “Completely.”
Seven years ago, Nielson married her sweetheart and they started their life together. Two children and five and a half years later their lives were rocked by a divorce, leaving her a single mother with no job and no degree.
Nielson has since re-evaluated her life and started over. Now working two part-time jobs and taking a full credit load at UVU as a business management major, she has set her sights on her new goals.
Apart from being a loving mother to her two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, one of her goals was to win the Miss UVU pageant this year. There’s one problem with that — she wasn’t eligible to compete.
The Miss UVU pageant, in association with the Miss America pageant, has specific requirements that disqualify her from competition. Two requirements concerning marital and parental status disqualify her for having “been married”, and for having “been pregnant.” Nielson feels those requirements are discriminatory.
“They’re judging me on the fact that I am a single mom,” Nielson said. “It has nothing to do with my ability to perform the tasks.”
She took particular offense to the parental status qualification. “I didn’t know I’d be judged on the status of my uterus,” she said. “It’s sick.”
Nielson is currently spearheading a movement to create a new format of beauty pageant which would not exclude married or single parents from competing. A petition is circulating the campus and a committee to explore alternative pageant options is being formed.
Some disagree with Nielson’s accusations that the current Miss UVU pageant’s guidelines are unjustly discriminatory.
Dean of Students Dr. Bob Rasmussen points to the Miss UVU pageant’s affiliation with the Miss America pageant saying, in order to participate in the Miss Utah and Miss America pageants, the university must adhere to their guidelines.
Director of Student Leadership and Activities, Phil Clegg, said, “If we want to play in their sandbox, we accept their rules.”
He and Rasmussen don’t feel their organizations are discriminating against single moms because scholarships with diverse ranges of restrictions on gender, race and background are offered at UVU.
“To say that we are just picking people to discriminate against is just flat out wrong,” Rasmussen said. “We have scholarships all over the board that have criteria on where you live and what degree you are seeking and ethnicity.”
Some of the supporters of Nielson’s movement share her disdain for the current pageant guidelines, despite the fact that many scholarships have similar guidelines. Dr. William W. Cobb, Jr., Professor of History, feels the criteria are unfair.
“Simply because you can name 20 others that do the same thing,” said Cobb, “doesn’t seem to be a reason to continue with one that I think discriminates against single parents.”
Coordinator of the Women’s Success Center, Peggy Pasin, feels the guidelines are unfair and supports the idea of moving towards an alternate pageant format.
“Honor those women on campus who would like the opportunity to participate in the pageant but have been prevented from doing so by the rules of the Miss America organization,” Pasin said.
Rasmussen believes that if it weren’t for the opportunity of being involved with the prestigious Miss America pageant, however, the beauty pageant format would be eliminated from the university altogether. New scholarship funds are currently hard to come by and the most immediate need for new scholarships exists in Academics.
Eliminating pageants altogether is not Nielson’s goal; she participated in pageants before her marriage. Nielson has voiced her current concerns with Mrs. Utah America 2011 Carol Guest who, according to Nielson, was a single mother. Nielson also had a dinner with current Miss Utah Danica Olsen.
At this year’s Miss UVU pageant event, Miss Utah and Miss UVU 2011 Camille Echols expressed support for Nielson’s cause.
“Pageants are a celebration of womanhood,” Echols said. “The more women we can strengthen, the better.”
Others, however, including Miss Utah’s Outstanding Teen 2012 Jessica Richards feel that the commitment to pageants is too much for those with conflicting priorities.
Former Miss UVU attendant Kaydee Brown, a senior studying elementary education, said the pageant is “too hard to do with other attachments.” She added her thoughts about married women and mothers competing, as well.
“I think people like that have better things to do than to prance around on the stage,” Brown said.
The time commitment for Olsen would indeed be demanding. Some requirements of being Miss Utah include a sabbatical from school and a stipulation to have no job for the year. Nielson feels that she would be up to the commitment, however, and that she should at least be given the chance.
“I’ve committed to being a parent for the rest of my life, and you think I can’t commit to a pageant for a year?” Nielson said.
Nielson is gathering people, especially single mothers, to join her cause. Last week she drafted and sent a letter to President Holland explaining her concerns and intentions. A response is expected soon, as Rasmussen and Clegg confirmed the letter had been received and reviewed.
Rasmussen doesn’t consider himself or the university an obstacle to Nielson’s overall goals. Cobb has offered to be a faculty advisor for the planned committee.
“Her heart and her energy are in the right place,” Cobb said.
It seems that praise for her efforts has come from all sides as Rasmussen also complements her.
“I champion students for taking initiative,” Rasmussen said. “I think it’s fantastic that she’s reaching out.”
Nielson lights up when she thinks about her cause and others are taking notice.
Students on campus have come up to her in the halls and have asked, “You’re that single mom, right?”
She responds, “Yes I am, I’m proud of it.”
By Spencer Healey