On Oct. 15, 2022, Willamette Public Health, Ethics, Advocacy and Leadership (PHEAL) major Elizabeth Muñoz competed in the Miss Oregon USA Pageant. The daughter of Mexican immigrants and the first mother and married woman to participate in the pageant, Muñoz hoped to use her experience to inspire and pave the way for her daughter and other women in similar positions.
The Miss Oregon USA Pageant is a scholarship competition and beauty pageant that selects the representative for Oregon in the Miss America pageant. Muñoz originally applied to Miss America in 2020, but then she moved out of Portland and decided not to participate. She then got married and gave birth to a daughter, which made her ineligible to compete. However, following a rule change this year at both the national and state levels, Muñoz decided she would become the first married woman and mother to take part in the pageant because, “It’s not a frequent occurrence that someone like me is given the opportunity to showcase their story on TV in a pageant like this.”
Muñoz was already familiar with being the first—she is a first-generation American and the first person in her family to both go to college and compete in pageantry. Because she didn’t have the same kind of guidance growing up, Muñoz hoped by competing she would make the opportunity more approachable for her daughter: “I wanted to have this experience in Miss Oregon USA because if my daughter ever decides she would like to do something like compete in a pageant, she won't necessarily have to figure it out on her own like I did. I'll be able to tell her that I've been there and hopefully she can learn from it too.”
During her time in the competition, Muñoz found that pageantry was full of opportunities and made up of networks of business-oriented women who were passionate in their fields and diverse in their interests and experiences. She discussed the many misconceptions about pageants, and emphasized that the competitions are “not just about looking beautiful…[the] people who are finalists and semifinalists, they have substance.” She described how she became close friends with participants who did work in their communities and had higher education and educated jobs, with this year's line-up of competitors including disability advocates, business owners and entrepreneurs.
Though Muñoz did not win the Miss Oregon USA title, the competition has presented her with many opportunities to continue her pageant career, both as a competitor and director. In an email follow-up she said, “I signed a contract to be Ms. of Oregon 2023 with American Pageants, Inc. and will be competing for the national title Ms. of America next year. I think I’ll also be resigning my contract with Pageants NW for Miss Oregon USA…I’ve also been given the chance to interview to be a pageant director for an international pageant system which is great.” She has also seen the impact of her participation already in empowering others: “I’ve gotten good response[s] from people on my social media related to body image, being a mom and competing. [It] makes me think it was worth it to have competed even though I was nervous at first due the changes my body went through after having my child less than a year ago.”
In addition to her future in pageants, Muñoz is also focused on her degree at Willamette, which is part of a new program designed for public health practitioners who want to focus on community engagement, leadership and being active participants in health equity. Muñoz’s variety of job experiences influenced her decision to go into Public Health, Ethics, Advocacy and Leadership. She worked in theater and acting for several years and also had the opportunity to travel through a program at Pacific University. In addition to these experiences, Muñoz also worked a variety of healthcare and education-related jobs. The various careers she took part in helped her go in the direction of public health because “in a way [they] all just [tried] to better the community.”
Similarly to her work in pageants, Muñoz plans to use her degree in Public Health to help her family and community: one day she hopes to start a business, one that draws from her passion and experience in production and theater and builds the foundations for a better life for the next generation. She said, “In my public health major they've emphasized the importance of the social determinants of health and how that impact's people's health over the course of their life span. Education and degree completion play a big role in upward social mobility especially when you're not coming from generational wealth…I also want to help build that foundation…[and] do better for the generation that comes after us.”
As a whole, Muñoz hopes that her experiences in the Miss Oregon USA Pageant as well as the general steps she is taking to better her community will inspire people in similar circumstances to herself to pursue opportunities that seem unattainable. She hopes that wherever she ends up, it is in a position where she can aid people and build them up.