In a historic night of firsts at Augusta University, both the Miss AU and Mr. AU competitions were held as one signature event Sept. 30.
Additionally, Mr. Augusta University 2023, Eduardo Ortiz, became the first Latino to win the title. Initially, though, he only entered the contest to see how far he might make it.
He made it all the way.
Platform of mental health awareness
Ortiz noted seeing a plaque listing previous winners in the Jaguar Student Activities Center.
“There was not a Hispanic name there, and that doesn’t incorporate all of AU,” he said. “We have so much diversity here, so it only made sense to throw my hat in the ring. Who I am is a strength that defines me that I shouldn’t ignore.”
Ortiz’s challenges of acceptance and inclusion stem from childhood trauma. When he was 10 years old, his mother, who immigrated to the United States, moved back to Mexico against her son’s wishes. Ortiz chose to stay in the U.S. because he was told he could get a good education here.
While he decided to remain with his father and three siblings, he said the next two years until his mother returned as a U.S. citizen were the most devastating of his life. By the time he reached his freshman year in college, his depression intensified, he said. It is the reason his social impact statement during and after the competition focuses on mental health.
Ortiz also credits Mr. AU 2022 Zyare Orr as an inspiration for the coming year.
“The former Mr. AU was a light at the end of a dark tunnel,” he said. “He was a smiling face that impacted everyone. I want to be that smiling face to carry on that torch and that legacy. It’s not just about me but also the platform that people can benefit from. I want to expand resources at AU about mental health and educate students on what it really is. It’s a disease that can be treated. Like with any injury, you have to know when it’s minor and when it’s major.”
In addition to championing mental health awareness and student wellness, Ortiz also plans to bolster the Mr. AU program, Suit of Armor, created by his predecessor. The event offers free professional photos to students to help them build their professional presence. Ortiz believes the two efforts can co-exist, maximizing his reach to students and the greater Augusta community.
The 21-year-old senior from Gainesville, Georgia, is set to graduate in May with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the College of Science and Mathematics. He intends to earn a doctoral degree so he can one day teach at Augusta University.
Ortiz said representation matters and it’s important for Latino students to see professors who look like them. The POPUPS scholar and former Student Government Association senator, student affairs chair and secretary, respectively, used each position and platform as opportunities to share his culture with others.
None of those opportunities were as big, however, as center stage pageant night when he sang a Spanish song about love to a crowd of nearly 260 students, parents and guests. Dressed in jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, he belted out the tune during the talent competition with such emotion, it seemed he might shed tears. He later revealed he endured devastating news about a personal relationship two days before the competition.
“It really did mess me up a little bit, but my parents always raised me to know everything happens for a reason. There’s a lesson in it. Some things you have to learn hard. Eventually, it just made me better.”
1/2 Congrats to Eduardo and Cierra, our new Mr & Miss Augusta University, respectively. pic.twitter.com/FahedAydCN— Neil MacKinnon (@aug_provost) October 1, 2022
Miss AU encourages women in STEM
Newly crowned Miss Augusta University 2023 Cierra Williams, a 20-year-old Augusta native, competed in Miss AU last year but did not place or win an award. It was her first pageant. She later competed in two more local pageants and lost both.
She kept at it, though, along with asking for advice from a pro, Miss AU 2022 Chelsea Paulding.
“I didn’t see myself having the traditional pageant girl look, but I told myself I would keep practicing,” she said. “I watched interviews with other contestants, I practiced confidence, and decided I wouldn’t worry what anyone else was doing but me. I also reached out to Chelsea and asked her to teach me everything she knew. I was ready.”
Then, shortly before this year’s contest, came a loss from which she didn’t think she would recover. Her beloved grandfather, Dr. Kenneth Foster, passed away. The weight of grief almost caused her to withdraw from the pageant, she said. However, her grandpa’s example and 30-plus-year legacy of music education across the CSRA fueled her to continue. For the competition, she performed a piano piece, Blue Mood, which she wanted to play for her grandfather the weekend he died but never got the chance.
“I told myself, ‘I’m playing for him.’ It was pretty significant that he wasn’t there, but I know he sees, and I know he knows,” she said. “He wouldn’t want me to be sad and stop my life. I’m going to continue this in honor of him.”
Williams, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the School of Computer and Cyber Sciences, along with a minor in mathematics, is set to graduate in May. She plans to continue her platform, advancing STEM education, when she competes in the Miss Georgia Scholarship Competition next June. She believes STEM groups and women leaders throughout the state should work in tandem with the Miss America Organization “to address rapidly declining rates in STEM in women and underserved populations.”
Williams is already working with the U.S. Department of Defense as a target digital network analyst and plans to become a machine learning engineer researching artificial intelligence.
“STEM is critical for meeting the challenges not only for the next decade but also the next century,” she said.
Combining for larger impact
It’s that same forward thinking the pageant committee had in mind when it decided to combine the pageants. There were 10 contestants, seven women and three men. In the past, Miss and Mr. AU were separated by competitions and semesters; the male competition had been plagued by lagging interest, participation and attention since it began in 2018. Hosting a joint event moving forward unites the two winners and their titles.
“This way, they will be able to have the same reigning time and make a greater impact on campus, as they will be linked together through their winning year, 2023,” said Logan Moore, event co-chair.
Another change this year is an increased scholarship award for Mr. AU from $500 to $700, in addition to an official sash, crown and plaque. Miss Augusta University receives a $1,500 scholarship, an official Miss America Organization crown and sash, trophy, and Miss Georgia entry fees.
After Williams’s reign, she hopes to have increased the number of women and underserved populations pursuing STEM-related fields. When Ortiz hangs his crown, his goal is to have paved the way for students to easily access mental health resources, with no shame.
They are both ready to pursue their passions collectively to help all of Jaguar Nation and beyond.
“It’s going to be great working with Cierra,” said Ortiz.
“I’m excited to be working with him, sharing two perspectives,” Williams said.