“In the blink of an eye you become this instant celebrity. I couldn’t help but think, ‘I’m just an everyday girl. I’m nobody special.’”
In June of 2009, Ashley Shaffer was crowned Miss New Jersey. At just 23-years-old, she embarked on a year-long journey of a lifetime, even competing at the national level in the 2010 Miss America Pageant.
Now the 24-year-old is focused on grades instead of glamour. This September, the beauty queen turned business student put her crown on the shelf to pursue a different kind of title: an MBA from Rutgers Business School.
Having been born and raised in New Jersey, I always knew that I wanted to be Miss New Jersey and that I wanted to compete in the Miss America pageant. Growing up in Monmouth County, the Miss America pageant took place right in my backyard in Atlantic City. I grew up watching it with my mother and it had been a tradition shared by the both of us.
During my junior high school years I really wanted to get into acting and modeling, and I knew pageantry was a good way to reach those goals. When I became old enough, in the fall of 2005, I began competing for Miss New Jersey. You have to win a local title first, so I started out in some of the smaller, more localized pageants. At the time, I won a total of four local titles: Miss Monmouth County, Miss Burlington County, Miss Liberty, and Miss Columbus Day.
As I strived for the Miss New Jersey crown, I initially felt like it was the only thing I wanted to do in my life. But as you compete and grow and learn about yourself, you come to realize that it may not happen. Every year in the state pageant there were new girls and they were all amazing and they were all beautiful. So I reached a point where I was content with winning or not winning.
It took four years of competing, but I was crowned Miss New Jersey in June of 2009. When I actually won, I was truly flabbergasted.
My year as Miss New Jersey was the journey of a lifetime. While I was competing for the crown, my platform was to help fight America’s obesity epidemic. When I got to the stage of Miss New Jersey, I had an opportunity to raise this awareness to even greater heights.
I championed for “Battling America’s Obesity Epidemic” through partnerships with the American Heart Association and the Children’s Miracle Network. I spoke to more than 2,000 students across the state of New Jersey and lobbied for the passage of a new law into New Jersey legislature, requiring restaurants to put calorie counts on their menus. I also developed a cook book and a children’s healthy-eating coloring book titled “The Adventures of Harry the Healthy Horse.” This was great tool for children to interactively learn about the importance of having a healthy diet.
Living a positive and healthy lifestyle is important to me because I personally dealt with health and weight issues throughout my entire life. I leveraged the pageants and the Miss New Jersey stage to tell my story of how I lost weight the healthy way, encouraging young girls to live healthy and not resort to eating disorders.
Besides promoting this very important cause, my year as Miss New Jersey was filled with appearances, speaking engagements, and being an overall role model for young girls throughout the state. In the blink of an eye you become a celebrity, yet all I could think my entire year was that I was just an everyday girl.
My most memorable moment as Miss New Jersey would have to be competing in the Miss America pageant. Being able to compete on a stage against 53 contestants (including representatives from Washington D.C., the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico), considered to be the best in the country is quite a euphoric experience. I remember standing backstage the final night of the pageant. We were live on television and I thought to myself, “Tonight, I could be Miss America and begin the year of a lifetime.” This was followed by a rush of energy and excitement that is truly incredible.
I’d thought about being on that stage my whole life and there I was, standing in the moment. It sounds cliché, but I felt extremely fortunate. You can’t help but feel that way. In my heart I always believed I could do it, but to actually have it happen is indescribable. I still get chills when I think about it.
Toward the middle of my year as Miss New Jersey, I began thinking about what I would do next. Business school wasn’t really on the table at the time. My undergraduate degree from Marist College was in communication and I’d spent some time doing freelance work for CBS College Sports Network and the Major League Baseball Network. I also did some public relations work with Nike Communications. Because of these experiences, I considered law school because I thought I wanted to go into sports management or become an entertainment lawyer.
But as the year continued, I saw myself evolve in my role as Miss New Jersey and I knew I either wanted to take the obesity platform to an entrepreneurial level or pursue a career in public relations, marketing, or consulting.
“Your year as Miss New Jersey is done, welcome to business school.” The transition from Miss New Jersey to Rutgers was a huge 180 in my life. It was a swift turnaround with everything taking place in a matter of six months. I studied for and took the GMAT and applied to Rutgers Business School. I really liked Rutgers’ presentation. Plus it was a good fit for me because I’m from New Jersey, it was flexible, affordable, and I could work it into my schedule.
My concentration is ironic. I chose finance because I don’t have a business background. While I still enjoy marketing and communications and public relations, having a degree in finance will complement my undergrad degree and position me for a successful business career.
Because I enjoy both public relations and finance, I could see myself in investor relations when I finish the MBA program. But on the flip side, I may choose something wherein I can use my MBA in the sports or health industries. I see myself in the corporate arena and I like the stability factor of having a set job, but I could possibly own my own business down the road, using my MBA for entrepreneurial endeavors with my cook book and the children’s book.
Four words I would use to describe Rutgers are diverse, flexible, challenging, and supportive. While the course work is very hard and very challenging, and the professors expect a lot from us, they’re really supportive and want to see us succeed. The career management office is also extremely helpful. It’s definitely like a small family where everyone is very supportive of one another.
When I first got to Rutgers I was totally intimidated by the number of strong women in my class. They are the most driven, dedicated, and focused group of females I’ve ever encountered. However, they never made me feel out of place because I was a former beauty queen. They just accepted that I had high ambitions too and were respectful of my past achievements and the goals I now hold for my future.
My professors didn’t really know about it until an article was recently published in the school newspaper. Sometimes I’m sitting in class with a hat on and no make-up, trying to be inconspicuous. One professor said to me, “I didn’t know I was in the presence of a queen.”
Aside from my professors and friends who occasionally poke fun, I try to be a normal person and keep a low profile—as ironic as that may sound.
Since leaving pageant life, there are two things I miss. Certainly having the time to pamper myself and do girly things like hair and make-up and manicures. I also remember and miss the smiles on the faces of the little girls whom I met. It’s funny because you’re out there and you’re on appearances, you’re signing pictures and your hand is cramping up from signing so many autographs. There were times when I just wanted to go home. But in their eyes, I was this amazing Disney princess and the coolest person to them at that moment. It’s a humbling feeling to have young girls look at me in that way and to be a role model for them to look up to.
On the other hand, I definitely could do without the scrutiny that comes with being a beauty queen. I don’t miss the criticisms and the negativity of it all. There’s constant criticism of what you look like and what you’re wearing. And, let’s be honest, it’s a competition so there’s a bit of cattiness that comes with the territory also.
Business school and the real world don’t allow the flexibility to compete, so my pageant days are over. In addition, having already served as Miss New Jersey and competing for Miss America, I can no longer compete for either crown. But I’ll still be associated with the pageant. I’m also a part of an amazing sisterhood of former Miss New Jersey women.
Although my competing days are over, I know I’ll be a part of this for the rest of my life.