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June 7, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College junior Rachel Ann Cole entered the Miss Vermont pageant on a whim. Flipping through channels over winter break this year, she happened upon the Miss America pageant and just couldn’t stop watching.

She had participated in a pageant before. At two years old, her mother signed her up for one at the suggestion of a friend.

“I think I cried on stage and never did it again,” Cole said.

But this year, she signed herself up, developed a sturdy platform — “Building Bridges Through Literacy: Closing the Educational Gap” — and followed through.

On Sunday, at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Cole was crowned Miss Vermont 2007, a title that will take her to the Miss America Pageant next January.

Along with the rhinestone-studded crown and, for the first time ever in the 64 years of Vermont’s competition, a shimmering sash, Cole’s prizes included about $90,000 in scholarship offers to different schools, although she won’t be take any of them, of course.

She will take $3,500 in scholarship money toward her last year at Middlebury, and she will be paid for some of her official appearances throughout the year. She also has the option to participate in a program in which she would visit 20 different Vermont middle schools over the year and earn $5,000.

“And if you go to Miss America, what they don’t announce on national TV is that all the girls who aren’t in the top 10 get the non-finalist awards and there are about 20 of those, all for $4,000 or $5,000,” she said.

The Miss America Organization is the leading scholarship provider for women in the nation, distributing $45 million every year. For Cole, this was reason enough to apply.

And getting into the competition was easier than she had expected.

“I looked up the Miss Vermont Web site and it was so doable,” she said.

The pageant was held over the first weekend in June, two weeks after her classes ended, and the entry fee was only $100. Her one hesitation came when she began to develop a platform.

“I decided that if a platform didn’t come to me that I was passionate about, then I wasn’t going to compete,” she said. “Because that’s the whole motivation for (the pageant). You have to be willing to spend a year with your issue actively, and possibly, if you become Miss America, another year.”

Cole, a theater major and teacher education minor, quickly realized she had been piecing together her platform all year. Over the winter term she had an internship in New York City, observing and teaching kindergarten classes in private and public schools in the Bronx and Harlem.  

When she returned to Middlebury in the spring, she began student-teaching in Julie Schondube’s kindergarten class at Mary Hogan Elementary School, and noticed that the rural classroom faced many of the same struggles prevalent in the urban schools she had visited.

“The two could not be more different in population and landscape, but the struggles in a kindergarten classroom to catch up kids who are behind in reading, kids who come from families of the lowest socioeconomic class, are the same,” she said.

“And there’s such an easy solution to that, and that’s to get parents to read aloud to their kids, to get kids to read for pleasure and to write for pleasure, which takes them all the way through higher education,” she added.

Cole noted that her own upbringing in Tennessee reflected the power of an learning the love of books early on.

“I come from a working class family, neither of my parents attended college,” she said. “Yet my mom read so many books to me, like the entire Little House on the Prairie series three different times from the age of 1 to 4. And my dad told all of these incredible stories. That has to be why I succeeded here.”

At Sunday’s Miss Vermont competition there were only six contestants. Originally eight, one dropped out because of a fractured wrist — her talent was playing the piano — and another said the competition just wasn’t right for her this year. The young women who remained, including Middlebury Union High School senior Samantha Connor from Bridport, participated in a series of competitions, from personal interviews with the judges to strutting the stage in swimsuits and heels to performing a rehearsed talent.

Cole performed a monologue from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” As Miss Vermont, Cole will spend the year promoting her platform around the state; working at Fletcher Allen Health Care with the Children’s Miracle Network, Miss America’s primary charity organization; and making appearances at area events dressed in her sash and crown.

All the while, of course, she’ll be finishing up her senior year at Middlebury College, directing a play and writing a thesis.

Cole is thrilled about her new position as Miss Vermont, though she admits it’s going to take a while for the news to really sink in.

“(At the competition) it takes everyone, both on stage and in the audience, just a few moments to get it, because they announce the first runner-up, they don’t announce the winner,” she said. “So everyone kind of freezes right after they say the other girl’s name before they realize what has just happened.

“But the most fantastic part about it is that there are a whole lot of non-finalist awards and other scholarships to give out, and so almost every girl there came away with something,” she added. “And since there were only six of us, girls who weren’t finalists, got scholarship money, and that’s what it’s about: giving money to fund higher education.”

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