Penn State alumna to compete for Miss America title

University Park, Pa. -- When Miss Pennsylvania takes the stage on Jan. 29 to compete for the opportunity to be named Miss America, she will represent not only her home state but also her alma mater, Penn State.

Miss Pennsylvania Emily M. Wills is a 2006 graduate of Penn State, holding a bachelor's degree in psychology from the College of the Liberal Arts.

Wills, a late-bloomer of sorts on the pageant circuit, did not enter any of the childhood competitions available. Her first taste of pageant competition came when she won the Pennsylvania Junior Miss competition as a high school senior in 2001. Upon entering Penn State in 2002, Wills viewed entering the Miss Penn State competition as a natural transition from her Junior Miss success.

After winning the Miss Penn State title as a freshman, Wills received the usual congratulatory phone messages from friends and family on her cell phone. She also received an unexpected, but much-appreciated message that began, "Hello, this is Graham Spanier…."

"For the president of a Big Ten university to take time out of his schedule to call, that just threw me," said Wills.

"Being named Miss Penn State made me step outside my comfort zone. It really does open a lot of doors and helped me to think on my feet and to be able to articulate," Wills continued. It also opened doors to opportunities she otherwise would not have had. For example, she sang the national anthem at a football banquet with Joe Paterno on one side and President Spanier on the other. "JoePa came in and gave me a hug," Wills said.

In addition to serving as Miss Penn State, Wills was:

-- a Schreyer Honors College student;

-- a four-year member of the Penn State Dance Team;

-- the College of the Liberal Arts scholarship winner for both 2003 and 2004;

-- winner of the Asbury Award for Outstanding Leadership, Community Service and Promotion of Diversity; and

-- named a Promise Fellow, part of the America's Promise initiative.

Wills used words including "perseverance" and "dedication" when describing her experiences with the Miss Pennsylvania pageant.

In 2002, the same year she was named Miss Penn State, Wills was second runner-up in the state competition. Placing emphasis on the opportunities that the Miss Penn State title afforded her, Wills did not compete for the title of Miss Pennsylvania in 2003.

In 2004, Wills again began preparing to compete for the Miss Pennsylvania title, but unexpected surgery directly preceded the pageant. Although she managed to compete, a win was not to be.

In 2005, Wills was named first runner-up to a future top 10 Miss America contestant. Finally, in 2006 all of her hard work paid off, as the crown ultimately came to rest on her head.

The Miss America contest is not simply a beauty contest. The competition includes an interview segment that takes place before six judges, each of whom is accomplished in his or her respective professional field. Preparation for this segment of the competition is very important, because the questions are not "softballs." One question that came Wills' way was, "In the past Israeli-Palestinian conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, why has the United States always sided with Israel?"

An internship at the career center on the campus of Penn State gave Wills insight into the interview process and helped with her preparation for that and other questions. During her internship, Wills worked with students for upcoming job interviews by acting as the prospective employer.

"Working on the other side, where I was the one giving the questions, really helped me know what the judges were looking for when they were asking the questions," said Wills.

The Miss America Organization, of which the Miss Pennsylvania is a part, is the world's largest provider of scholarship assistance for young women, and that scholarship money is what inspired Wills to begin competing.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010