As a little girl, Tova Wilson ’07 looked up to the beautiful, well-rounded and accomplished women she saw in beauty pageants on TV. As a 23-year-old, she realizes their potential to create social change.
Wilson, who has never competed in a pageant before, has been named a semifinalist in the 2009 Miss Illinois USA Pageant that will be held
Dec. 5 through 7 in Chicago. The Ithaca College alumna said she decided to enter the contest to advocate early literacy education and help for homeless families — causes she has backed for years.
Wilson lives in Chicago and works for Teach for America, an association dedicated to ending educational inequality in low-income communities. She teaches preschoolers their ABCs by day and furthers her own education by night — working toward a master’s degree in education, with a concentration in early childhood studies at Dominican University in River Forest, Ill.
She said she persistently pursues her goals, even when the balance becomes difficult — she believes that “anything worth pursuing will be.”
Friends that Wilson made during her undergraduate years at the college now work with her on both a professional and personal level. Lonna Dawson ’07 teaches first grade in Houston and helps maintain the Web site Wilson uses to market herself. Tyrell Lashley ’08 also helps manage similar pageant-related projects from his home in Washington, D.C. The three met at the college and lived together during Wilson’s senior year. By the time she was named a state semifinalist in August, her friends were already prepared to jump on board.
“It was a given that I was going to help her,” Dawson said.
Dawson said they used to watch television shows such as “America’s Next Top Model” together but was shocked at Wilson’s initial interest in competing for the crown.
At first, Wilson’s family and other friends didn’t understand her out-of-character decision to compete for the Miss Illinois title since they assumed pageants were about nothing more than physical beauty.
Wilson’s friends described her as a very balanced person, someone they could laugh with but also study with.
“She has always been a go-getter,” Lashley said.
But Dawson said she quickly realized the Miss USA Pageant has evolved into more than just a beauty contest throughout the years. She said Wilson fits in perfectly with the other intelligent contestants from across Illinois.
Wilson attributes her commitment to public service to the adversity her own family faced. When she was in high school, they spent more than two years living on the streets and in homeless shelters of Atlanta. Her family struggled to make ends meet and ended up homeless after her mother was laid off from her job. Wilson said she would often go to The Waffle House, a 24-hour restaurant, and order sodas all night so she could have a place to get her homework done.
“I was still in school, I still had to do my homework, there were no excuses,” Wilson said.
She said if they could not get into a shelter, her family would sleep outside in parking lots and wash up in 24-hour laundromats. Eventually her mother secured a new job, but Wilson said the hardship stayed with her.
“No matter what, I had to do something with my life so I’d be better off,” Wilson said.
While at the college, Wilson devoted herself to several service projects, especially those related to her main concerns of improving education for disadvantaged groups. She participated in Prisoner Express, an organization that sends books to incarcerated individuals. Wilson wrote tips on spelling and grammar in the monthly newsletter that Prisoner Express publishes for prisoners so the inmates could practice writing skills. She said some of the prisoners told her the newsletter gave them a reason to wake up in the morning.
Wilson also helped plan a campus magazine called F.I.Y.A.H., “For Individuals Young And Hungry.” The magazine did not go to print before she graduated and is not currently in publication, but Wilson said its goal was to focus on student stories that were not told through other campus publications. She also volunteered in the college’s Sister 2 Sister program, a group that spreads awareness of women’s rights and promotes female empowerment.
Wilson plans to eventually pursue a joint J.D.-Ph.D. degree. She hopes her education and pageant experience will help her bring the changes she wishes to see in the world.
“More than winning the crown, I just want more emphasis put on early childhood learning since that’s the foundation for everything else,” Wilson said. “Because even after the competition, I’m still going to be an advocate for children and education reform.”