In October 2019, Priscilla Wang ’12 competed in the Miss World America pageant as Miss Oklahoma. In her day job, however, Priscilla is a software engineer at J.P. Morgan. Although she had never seriously considered entering a pageant before, Priscilla began competing this May and ended up placing in the Top 25 in the Miss World America pageant. Today, she aims to use her platform in pageantry to further her efforts to provide technical education and career opportunities for both boys and girls from underrepresented minority groups.
Priscilla attended TAS for upper school and credits her experience here with helping her understand that there was more to learning than grades. “I took a few AP and IB courses at TAS, and I especially enjoyed how my education encouraged me to fully understand a subject, rather than simply preparing for an exam. For example, Dr. Hartzell’s seminar-style AP Lit class was one of the most impactful courses I took, because it prepared me so well for a liberal arts education. Another class, IBHL Music, was a two-year course that focused on making us well-rounded musicians. We not only studied music theory, but also explored composition, performance, and the history of music,” Priscilla recalls.
After TAS, Priscilla enrolled at Scripps, an all-women’s liberal arts college in the Claremont Colleges Consortium, where she became intrigued by engineering. “The feeling of being able to create things is really empowering,” says Priscilla. “I never really thought of it as, ‘I’m going to be an engineer,’ but rather, ‘I am accumulating a skill set that will help me innovate and make cool things in the future.’” After taking her first course in electrical engineering, learning how to build circuits, and programming microcontrollers, Priscilla started exploring software engineering. Ultimately, she enrolled in the 3+2 program, which allowed her to graduate from Scripps with a Bachelor of Arts and also from Columbia Engineering with a degree in computer engineering. Today, Priscilla works in software engineering on client-side applications at J.P. Morgan.
At Columbia, Priscilla noticed the lack of gender diversity, as she was often one of the only women in a 40-person lab section. Once in the workforce, the lack of racial and ethic diversity was even more evident to her. “There are very few women in engineering, and even less so in technology management. Even further, the industry also mainly consists of Whites and East Asians,” confides Priscilla.
“Girls are often times taught to be creative, being encouraged to pursue things like art and music. Boys, on the other hand, are often socialized to play video games and join robotics, both of which lead to an increased interest in engineering. Moreover, both boys and girls from minority backgrounds often do not have similar access to the resources or exposure to develop an interest in STEM fields.” For these reasons and more, Priscilla decided that she wants to devote her time to initiatives that reimagine engineering, not only as a creative activity but also as a democratizing one: an occupation that is open to all people.
“I volunteer for Girls Who Code, which sponsors engineers around the nation to come talk to girls about what it’s like to be an engineer. My company, J.P. Morgan, actually sponsors a 7-week summer program where Girls Who Code brings the instructors and curriculum, while we provide the rest: classrooms, logistics, food, field trips, and speakers. I began working with them as the liaison for the company. Girls Who Code doesn’t just teach young women how to code – it also creates a supportive environment. In addition, All-Star Code is another organization I volunteer for which focuses on underrepresented minority boys, who are also missing from the engineering field. I’m grateful that partnering with these organizations has allowed me to do what I feel passionate about: cultivate a supportive learning environment for girls and students of color.”
For Priscilla, the value of a supportive community was key to her success, and she now wants to bring that to help encourage more students from underrepresented populations get into engineering and STEM. “So many of these great organizations and events are free, but many kids don’t know that there are people and resources to help them succeed. In high school, I used to look at engineering and think I’d never be able to do that. I felt really intimidated then, but once I stepped into the real world, I learned that other women - and people more broadly - have the same insecurities as me! Scripps as a women’s college made me realize how important it is to have a supportive community; it allowed me to realize that I am not the only one on this journey and that I have an army of people who see my full potential, even when I can’t.”
Astonishingly, Priscilla’s entrance into the beauty pageant world only happened this May. “I’ve been following pageants for quite a while. I have always admired how pageant girls are able to balance their day job, volunteer work, and trainings for competitions,” Priscilla explains. Why had she never decided to enter before? “I never felt very confident about the way I look, but this year is the next to last year I’m eligible because of my age, so I decided to compete in one of the preliminary rounds to challenge myself.”
In the beauty pageant world, there are four main systems of competition: Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss International, and Miss Earth. “I chose to participate in the Miss World system because it’s the one that cares most about making an impact in the world,” explains Priscilla. “Their slogan is ‘Beauty With a Purpose.’ For example, some of the pageant girls work at improving financial literacy among immigrant populations, assisting at-risk youth in the college application process, and advocating for American Sign Language education in public schools. Everyone here has causes they care about, and that’s what brought them to pageantry.” Though she did not place in the first preliminary round, Priscilla enjoyed the experience and made good friends. When she was invited back to compete at another preliminary a month later, she won and was crowned Miss Oklahoma. “After my first time, I realized there’s so much that goes into it – getting your hair right, your walk, standing. So I did more research and put in more effort for the second pageant, and it turned out really well. Because I went in with the expectation of learning and making myself a better person, it ended up being much more fun and not as stressful.”
However, the weeks leading up to the national pageant for Miss World America were still quite intense for Priscilla. “I had to find dresses, get them tailored, work on my walk… at the same time, I was trying to work my 40-hour work week!” laughs Priscilla. “The preliminary challenges include social media, talent, and top model walk. Then there’s the final. I think the hardest thing is getting the look down for your evening gown, because stage make-up is so different from make-up in photos. Most girls need the help of a make-up artist because it’s really overwhelming during the competition itself. When you walk, you have to show your grace and hopefulness, because they’re looking for America’s Sweetheart.” Ultimately, Priscilla finished in the Top 25. “I really liked this pageant experience, because sometimes, there are 200 girls going on stage, but with 50 girls, each representing a state, I felt that I got to know them really well.” smiled Priscilla. “I’m excited to collaborate with a few girls on STEM-related causes. Miss Massachusetts is a civil engineer and Miss California is a physicist who used to work with NASA. The three of us are planning a ‘Girls’ STEM Day’ in the Spring of 2020. My main goal at Miss World America was to make friends with incredible women, and I am really glad to say that this huge network has stayed with me beyond the pageant.”
Now that the competition is over, Priscilla looks forward to using her platform to promote her causes. “The glitz and glamour is definitely really fun, but for me, I entered the competition because I thought it was a great opportunity to promote the causes that I care about.” After winning the Miss World Oklahoma crown, Priscilla made an appearance at the Tulsa STEM Expo. “They invited me to speak to the kids and engage with them to inspire them to go into STEM. Tulsa is very diverse, but the school districts are very divided. There’s still a lot of work to be done in order for every child to have equal access to education, and I hope to a part of that process,” Priscilla concludes.
In 2020, Priscilla hopes to host her own workshops in Oklahoma and all around the world to get young people interested in STEM. “I’m still trying to figure out what the needs are in the communities I’m serving. Maybe it’s a women-focused hackathon or a workshop focused on students from racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. I want to do some more research on how I can best serve the community,” said Priscilla. To sponsor or collaborate on making workplaces in tech more diverse, Priscilla invites fellow alumni to get in touch with her through her website: thepriscillawang.com
“My goal – my heart – is set on helping kids. I want to show them know how exciting life as an engineer can be. I want to create a great experience for them. And after I got back from nationals on Monday, I immediately thought, ‘OK, I’m ready to get to work.’ I understand that there will be a lot of challenges. But anything worth having in the world is worth the effort.”