Breaking Barriers Through Distinguished Young Women

“You were the first person with a physical disability to compete in Distinguished Young Women. We broke a barrier tonight.” -Lindsay Thompson

Breaking Barriers Through Distinguished Young Women

Robyn Clarke, Editor

Junior Robyn Clarke pictured with her father Andy Clarke at the Distinguished Young Women’s Program 2017.



When I think back on my incredible experience as a participant in the 2016 Distinguished Young Women’s program, those words instantly come to mind. Those words sum up everything Distinguished Young Women was to me: being given a challenge, overcoming it, and meeting amazing people along the way.

Formerly known as America’s Junior Miss, Distinguished Young Women was founded in 1958 “as a way to reward the accomplishments of high school senior girls seeking to pursue higher education,” as it says on the Distinguished Young Women website. The DYW competition is held in all fifty states, and focuses on each girl “being her best self”. It has five components: an interview, a fitness routine, a “self-expression routine”, which focuses on poise and grace, a talent, in which each girl has ninety seconds to perform a talent routine which shows her strengths, and “scholastics”, in which each participant’s cumulative GPA is calculated and factors into her overall score. There is also an opening number, where the girls get to have fun and be themselves as they are introduced to the crowd! The competition begins at the county level, with those winners going on to state. State winners then compete nationally, and whoever is named the Distinguished Young Woman at the national level is awarded $40,000 in scholarship money.

I found out about Distinguished Young Women through Ms. Lindsay Thompson, the chairman for our county and a family friend of ours. At first, I was skeptical. I knew the fitness and self expression aspects of the competition required strength and mobility that I didn’t have, and I wasn’t sure how that would affect my score, or how my walker would be perceived by the other girls.

Before the program itself, we had practices once a week, so we could be as prepared as possible. At the first few practices, I was a bundle of nerves, and constantly trying to figure out what the other girls thought of my disability-what they thought of me. I soon realized that to them, my walker was nothing more than an object. I was blown away by how accepting and kind they all were, and grateful beyond words for their never-ending willingness to help and reassure me when I became frustrated- because I did, especially when I was unable to do the self expression routine the way it had been originally choreographed. While Ms. Lindsay didn’t hesitate to change it after we realized I couldn’t perform it, it was hard for me to accept that my disability prohibited me from doing something I wanted to do. With Ms. Lindsay’s reassurance and the girls’ endless encouragement, I realized it was okay that I couldn’t do the routine its original way, and that standing still while the other girls pivoted was not strange, or weird, or wrong. It was just different, and different was not something to be ashamed of.

My favorite part of practice was the interview preparation. While half of the girls rehearsed fitness with Ms. Lindsay, the other half of us gathered in the front room with Ms. Stephanie, a committee member, to practice answering mock interview questions. There, we learned how to think on the spot, how to overcome the nerves that were sure to come when we stood in front of the five judges, and what to do if  we became unsure of how to respond to a question. I loved interview practice because there, I felt like I could completely be myself, without the restrictions of my walker. After all, all I had to do was talk- which I can always do.

Before we knew it, Competition Day had come. All sixteen of us arrived at the Centre for Performing Arts bright and early on the morning of January 14th. We were all nervous, but being together helped to calm us. We could do this. This was what we had been practicing for for weeks. All we had to do was be ourselves and do the best we could. We were ready. We could do this. And we did.

We made it through the interview, an intense ten minutes where the judges could ask us anything and everything about ourselves, as well as current event questions. With the help of Ms. Lindsay, Ms. Stephanie, and other women who had been involved with the program before, we got through talent and fitness rehearsal before enjoying lunch and going through a full dress rehearsal. And then, it was show time.

The opening number was a fun dance routine, where, after performing, we introduced ourselves and said when we felt the most electric. After that, we split into two groups. We performed the self-expression routine first, and I forced myself to let go of the frustration and enjoy the moment, enjoy being onstage with these incredible girls. Next, the other girls did fitness, while I rehearsed my talent one more time. Talent was my favorite part of the show, because I got to share the story of a cancer fighter whose strength and positivity inspires me every day. I loved being able to tell her story, and remind everyone that no matter what happens, you have to keep fighting, and never forget to smile.

Once the program ended, there was one thing left for us to do: wait, while the judges went through scores and determined the winners for each individual category. Even though we were all nervous and on edge, we were somehow able to relax and enjoy spending time with each other. Those forty-five minutes were filled with laughter, speculation, and stories of earlier in the day, and it was then, surrounded by these strong, amazing girls, that all of the frustration became worth it. Suddenly, I was able to see the entire picture, which was bigger than not being able to perform a self expression routine. While I had been focused on me, and what I was able to do, what this experience was about was us. It was about sixteen girls who may not have known each other coming together and overcoming obstacles together, because each of us were climbing our own mountains. Some were visible, but others weren’t. It was about how we overcame them, the lessons we learned along the way, and the memories and friendships we walked away with.

When the judges were finally ready to announce the results, we all hurried onstage together, and cheered for each other as the winners were announced. I could not be more proud of Ashley Stephens, Ryan Smith, Lily Robles, Lauren Howland, Lyla Norton, and all of the other amazing girls I shared that experience with. They’re what I think of when I think of Distinguished Young Women. Finding out from Ms. Lindsay afterwards that I was the first person with a physical disability to compete made a wonderful journey even more meaningful, because I learned that with determination, encouragement and love from wonderful friends, you can overcome any obstacle, and maybe, break a barrier or two along the way.