The past few weeks I’ve received a host of good news, including a monumental phone call from George Washington University stating that I was admitted into my top graduate school program in Curriculum and Instruction. As I traveled down to Camden to visit Wiggins College Prep school this past Friday, I started to reflect about my journey and what has ultimately lead me to these moments of triumph. I saw long, sleepless nights slaving over my laptop with the glow of the screen beaming on the large cup of coffee that accompanied me to the library. I saw doors that have been slammed in my face and potential opportunities that simply weren’t meant to be. I saw endless days of going to class, practicing, traveling, speaking, performing, inspiring, mentoring, studying, and pushing to be one step better than I was the day before. Most importantly, I saw all the moments where I called my parents crying out of both defeat and joy, where they sat with pride in the front row of all my performances, and where they told me to just keep going regardless of how discouraged I was. When contemplating talking points for this school visit, I decided to share with the 5th-8th grade students the three key lessons my parents have taught me and the ways they’ve positively influenced me without even realizing.
I began my presentation with a poll: “How many of your parents have taught you something?” Virtually every hand shot up automatically. “I am going to share with you today what my parents have taught me and how these lessons were instrumental in raising a Miss New Jersey.”
1. Stay Hungry
As a young girl, one of the most important lessons my parents taught me was if you don’t know the answer to something, you have to go out and find it yourself. No one in life will hand anything to you. I would bring complicated homework problems to my parents and when I could not figure out the answer, they challenged me, “Go to the library. Search on the computer. You have to go after what you’re looking for, even if it isn’t always the easiest route.” This made me hungry. I was always asking the “why?” questions and asking provocative questions that no one cared to ask. This made me dauntless and unafraid. I delved into my studies in school and always went above and beyond because I had a limitless amount of questions and a hunger that craved to seek the answers. This hunger turned into a burning passion.You have to ask questions. You cannot stay complacent and ignorant to the larger community and world around you because you will be blinded by ignorant bliss. You can’t just sit at the table, you have to establish a presence at the table. Raise your hand, participate, and be present. Change will not come if you are not hungry. I always wanted to do more and be more because that lesson resonated so profoundly.
The difference between this year and previous years during my competition journey was that I started to question. My motto was, “Why not me? Why not now? Why can’t I be the one to change people’s views?” I’ve learned that people will tell you you cannot do something and place limits on you because they’ve placed limits on themselves. You have to keep going, but most importantly, you have to question. After I competed at Miss New Jersey for the third time and advanced to the top five, I was content. I felt that I gave it my all and that I had nothing left to give. I was ready to throw in the towel and concentrate on other aspects of my life. It was my parents who begged me to give it one more shot and repeated that it was not within my character to quit. The next day, I signed up for the local pageant that would ultimately lead me to becoming Miss New Jersey.
2. Stay Respectful and Respectable
A core value in my household was respect. I was taught to have the highest respect for everyone. It did not matter if someone was five years old or ninety-five years old, I had to treat everyone with the same level of respect I desired. This lesson became extremely prevalent once I entered college and became a student leader. You are not going to like everyone, but if you respect them enough to put your differences aside to reach a common end goal, you are able to work together effectively and efficiently. My step-dad will walk into a room and greet everyone, even if he does not know them. When I started going on job and internship interviews, I picked up this trait and always remembered to treat the janitor the same way I would treat the CEO. You never know what a person has to offer the world until you give them the chance to do so.
As Miss New Jersey, I have to interact with people from all walks of life, all demographics, and all backgrounds. Respect allows me to view the world through an open-minded lens. I was never concerned about a person’s physical qualities, but rather what they had to offer the world. In working with different groups of students, most from marginalized backgrounds, I will never forget when one of my students from a Boys and Girls Club came up to me after an arts workshop and commented, “Miss Cierra, I love when you come on Thursdays because you don’t yell at us and you talk to us like we’re humans. You respect us.” We all want to feel valued. We all want to be loved. Most importantly, we want to be respected because it gives us a sense of self-worth.
In terms of being respectable, you never know who is looking up to you as a source of inspiration. My parents always told me to be mindful of my actions because regardless of whether or not I felt like a role model, there are always others looking at me. My mom always jokes, “I want to be like you when I grow up,” and I keep this in the back of my mind as a reminder to continue being someone that my parents will always be proud of.
3. Stay Grounded
My parents always remind me to never forget the unique qualities that make up my existence. They also taught me to never forget where I came from. When days become long and hectic and I’m on the road for what seems like hours, it’s easy to lose momentum. It’s easy to forget why I set out to do certain things in the first place. Trust me, there are days where the last thing I want to do is get out from underneath the warmth and depth of my covers and venture to class, an event, or a meeting, instead of curling up with snacks and Netflix marathons. I’ve made it a point to put myself in a situation where every morning I wake up and I am reminded that anyone could easily crawl back into bed, but there is greater meaning outside of myself for the work that I do. Staying grounded means remembering and constantly refreshing your inspiration for the work that you do. For me, my life worth lies in the eyes of young people when they relate to my message and that inspires them. My life worth lies in the voices of my parents when I call them to tell them about my successes and they beam with pride. My life worth lies in knowing that every single day I can wake up and have a fresh chance to leave the world a better place than when I entered it.
Staying grounded also means remembering that having a crown and sash makes me no different than the next person. Talking to my parents and doing the things that I love serve as a reminder to be humble because I was not always blessed with these opportunities and that I have to seize these chances because this job is a privilege. In working with and speaking with thousands of students, staying grounded makes me relatable to them. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard, “You’re so pretty. You’re so talented. You’re so well-spoken” from students and I just laugh knowing that underneath the surface, I’m just a big goof with hair that has a mind of its own, a nerd that sometimes trips over her own shadow, and a compilation of mistakes that string together to create strength.
I’m still learning how to effectively express gratitude because I feel like a simple “thank you” will not suffice. My parents have shaped me in unimaginable ways and if it were not for their guidance and support, I would not be half the woman I am today. More importantly, I would not be able to share these lessons if it weren’t for the impact of my parent’s teachings. Stay hungry, stay respectful, and stay grounded.