Eleven contestants of the annual Mr. and Miss USF scholarship pageant took the ballroom stage of the Marshall Student Center on Thursday evening to show that they were worthy of the titles of Mr. and Miss USF.
Contestants displayed their commitment to a healthy lifestyle, sang, danced, played musical instruments and speed-decorated cake. They then donned elegant suits and dresses while the announcer summarized their platforms and values.
Only two contestants, however, won the title of Mr. and Miss USF and a $500 scholarship each.
As the pageant drew to a close, the winners of last year’s pageant took the stage to crown this year’s winners, Joshua Soto and Marion Ugochukwu, as Mr. and Miss USF.
Joshua Soto said he joined the pageant to give back to the university and its surrounding community.
“All of the opportunities I’ve gotten since freshman year have been because of the strong community we have, and (winning Mr. USF) was my way of figuring out how to give back to the community,” he said. “I feel like now I can give back in a different way and show everybody else that with a little determination, anything can happen.”
The pageant, Soto said, was a trying experience at times. Staying motivated and confident was often difficult, but he said he had a group of people who supported him to victory.
“I think a lot of the time it was staying with it and not just stepping back and saying, ‘Okay, I can’t do this anymore,’” he said. “I was getting overwhelmed, but I think the amount of support I had the entire time helped me to stay engaged and not lose track of the end goal — to give back to my community.”
A senior majoring in international studies, Soto has been an orientation team leader, leadership assistant for the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement and the director of the Emerging Leaders Institute. He also currently sits on the Campus Traditions Board and is the social director of his fraternity, Alpha Sigma Phi.
Soto said one of the initial reasons he became so involved in the USF community was to gain more confidence and build his leadership skills.
“During my freshman year, I was the shy student who, if you called my name, would turn around and completely ignore you,” Soto said. “So I applied for the Emerging Leaders Institute … and we (drove) off to this retreat site for two days, and they gave us all the tools necessary to discover who we are.”
Soto said he is passionate about representing the autistic community, and his pageant platform and values consisted of raising autism awareness and funding autism research. Soto’s younger brother was diagnosed with autism at USF’s Hearing Clinic.
“We have a huge deaf and hard of hearing community, and I want to show USF that we do have that community on campus, and we tend to forget in our close circle of friends what’s on the outside,” he said. “I think the hardest thing for families and students on campus is accepting those who have mental disorders and disabilities. I want to raise awareness and promote acceptance.”
Soto is majoring in international studies and said he wants to learn about different cultures and traditions around the world, and how those countries interact with one another.
“USF is so diverse … the same community we have here at USF is mimicked at different places in the world,” Soto said. “For me, being able to put myself in somebody else’s shoes and experience their culture has been amazing for studying abroad … I was in awe the entire time; every single country I went to had a different culture and a different atmosphere.”
His interest in different cultures is the main reason why Soto said he chose to study abroad last summer through the Semester at Sea program — hosted by the University of Virginia — in which students spend 10 weeks on a cruise ship visiting 11 different countries, such as Russia, Portugal, Poland, Scotland, Norway and Finland.
“That was my first time out of the country, and it’s really hard to describe the experience because so much happened. They told us, ‘If you come back home thinking the same way, we did something wrong,’” Soto said. “I came back to Florida and realized that my perspective on the world had completely changed.”
Soto said he hope for a bright future after graduation in May. He plans to work at Alpha Sigma Phi’s headquarters in Indiana. After which, he wants to travel across the U.S. and expand the fraternity to other colleges. Soto said he’ll eventually go for a master’s degree in higher education and public administration.
“Higher education has helped me so much over the past few years and just shown me that once you become involved, you never stop being involved,” he said. “I want to do that afterwards and see where that goes.”
Marion Ugochukwu said she joined the pageant so that her values and beliefs for improving society would be heard and taken seriously.
“I wanted to become Miss USF because I wanted to bring awareness to things I care about, and I mean that sincerely; it’s not just a gimmick,” she said. “When I came to USF, I already knew I wanted to be Miss USF because in high school I was always the kid who was really passionate about … the environment, about equality, and I’d always get nailed for it.”
Winning this year’s pageant was by no means an easy task, she said, as it required sacrificing sleep while putting in long hours at work.
“I was working all the time, not seeing my friends, not being able to call my family,” she said. “A lot of times I would lose confidence, and that was probably the hardest part.”
Ugochukwu also learned new talents to prepare for the contest, all while maintaining her 3.8 GPA as a junior majoring in biology.
“To qualify, you didn’t have to do too much, you just had to fill out the application properly and on time, but to prepare … (I did) everything,” she said. “I learned how to play piano for the pageant, learned how to walk in heels.”
Now that all of Ugochukwu’s hard work has paid off, she said she may have more time to enjoy some of her favorite hobbies.
She said listening to music is a prominent pastime for her and she spends a lot of money purchasing songs. Some of her favorite musical artists are Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Nirvana and The Beatles, as she played three of their songs on piano during the pageant.
Miss USF said she also enjoys conducting recreational interviews with people and that it allows her to learn more about the people in her community, such as a variety in Downtown Tampa, and helped her to gain a more mature perspective on society.
“You learn so much about the way people think,” she said. “We’re all really just products of our environment, and it’s incredible what an interview can do to someone. When you interview someone, you make them (feel) important. You’re listening to what they’re saying, and they’re allowed to just talk about their feelings, and when you give people that opportunity.”
She also said she enjoys learning about geography, reading almanacs, making amateur films and has a strong interest in learning about how living organisms work and the uniqueness of human beings.
Ugochukwu’s pageant platform specifically dealt with raising awareness of domestic abuse and representing victims of domestic violence. She said she also cares greatly about gender inequality in general.
“I just care about the plight of women worldwide,” she said. “My main goal here is to make people aware of what happens … my number one job, I feel, is to make people aware of what is going on in the world because I think that we’re so detached.”
In the future, Ugochukwu said she would like to use the opportunities and education she has to give back to the people, though she ultimately does not know what career she will seek after college. She does, however, have a number of goals to accomplish later in life, such as winning the Nobel Peace Prize and increasing representation of African countries, namely Nigeria.
“I feel that every day I learn something new about myself and about the world, and I can’t live in the same way I was living yesterday …and if I keep that mind, I think I’ll go down the right road,” she said. “I’m going to continue to pay attention to the people around me, learn from my experiences… I’m not going to put a cap on what I want to do.”