Grace Miller woke Sunday morning feeling as if she had been dreaming, but she hadn’t.
On Saturday, Feb. 25 Grace was named the Class of 2024 Distinguished Young Woman. She will now represent Oakdale at the State level in Bakersfield this summer.
The longtime scholarship event, co-sponsored by Soroptimist International of Oakdale and Oakdale Joint Unified School District, invites young ladies of the Junior Class to participate for the opportunity to win scholarships. This was the 38th year SIO has hosted the event.
A total of 13 young women participated in the 2024 DYW event. Each were evaluated in the areas of: Scholastics (25 percent); Interview (25 percent); Talent (20 percent); Fitness (15 percent) and Self Expression (15 percent). A collection of how each participant has performed in the five judged areas is collected and tabulated for the overall winner.
“It requires an extensive process to determine our next Distinguished Young Woman,” Co-Emcee Colleen Hawks-Pierce explained during Saturday night’s program, of the selection process nationwide, noting a total of 500 local programs.
Hawks-Pierce herself was named DYW (formerly Junior Miss) in 1982, winning at both the local and state level. She went on to have a blossoming career on Broadway before returning to Oakdale.
While it is customary for several categories to be evaluated by the judges prior to the live event, Saturday night’s audience was treated to a fitness performance, talent display by each of the ladies, as well as self-expression, which was to offer response to a question they had received the night before the competition.
Each of the 13 girls displayed a variety of notable talents, as well as a poised and eloquent answer to the question: In your Golden Years how do you want to be remembered?
“We salute them for their accomplishments and for the promise they hold as future leaders in our society,” Hawks-Pierce stated prior to the winners being announced.
DYW 2023 Jessica Birchall approached the podium and offered some insight and wisdom on what the program has done for her.
“DYW teaches these young women to have the self-confidence they need to succeed in life and I cannot think of a more worthy cause,” Jessica shared with the audience, adding the experience is about so much more than scholarship money. She further offered gratitude for the opportunity to grow relationships with her classmates, as well as the friendships she made through her experience at the state competition.
“Distinguished Young Women, has truly been the highlight of my high school experience,” she continued. “I’m so, so thankful for the lessons I’ve learned and the people I’ve met. Win or lose, scholarship or none, they should be proud of showing up and being their best selves.”
And even as multiple scholarships were given out for the Top 5, one for each category, as well as other scholarship recognition, there can only be one winner and on Saturday night that winner was OHS junior Grace Miller.
The 17-year-old shared she woke to seeing the Medallion hanging from a shelf and thought, “No way did that actually happen. I was just so in awe that I was the one chosen, because everyone was so talented. It just means so much to me, it doesn’t seem real yet.”
Grace explained she first became aware of the program from her mother, who also participated as a junior at OHS. As fate would have it, her mother won a scholarship for talent, as did Grace on Saturday night.
Belting out a 90-second performance of “Suddenly Seymour” was exactly what was needed for those in attendance to experience the musical gift of the talented teen.
“My mom says that I was a back seat singer,” Grace noted, adding that she began singing Little Mermaid from the age of two.
“I love the ability that music has, to really put your emotions into play. You connect to the song so much more, when you have emotions that connect to the song,” she shared.
Aside from Show Choir in school and a handful of on-stage performances since the age of nine, Grace has no formal training.
“When I sing, I really love singing songs that have meaning behind them. I have connection with the song. I feel amazing, especially when I can sing a song I have connection to,” Grace confided.
And while the overall win went to her and a scholarship for talent as well, she shared there was a much deeper takeaway than the $5,800 she left with along with the coveted medallion.
“It’s just so wholesome,” Grace said of the overall experience. “Jessica Birchall said that you forget that you’re in competition. When I first heard that, I was like yeah right. This is going to turn into Toddlers and Tiaras, but what she said was totally true. You forget that you’re actually competing for these things. These girls have become like sisters to me.”
That point is perhaps what Program Director and longtime Soroptimist Nancy Lilly enjoys most about working with the young women. This year marks her 30th of helping with the annual program, first being recruited to help with choreography and fitness in 1993
“Back then it was Junior Miss, I just loved the program so much, so I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Lilly recalled of the early days. “Look at the bonus of all I got becoming a Soroptimist member, growing my leadership skills through all the training of Soroptimist. Very, very blessed.”
Echoing what is said by so many, Lilly acknowledged the girls coming together as acquaintances yet when leaving the program have such a shared bond.
“We do this program because the Distinguished Young Women Program aligns with the Soroptimist mission to help women and girls. That’s why we choose to sponsor the program and then you just see it all come together at the end,” she shared.
Lilly added that, to her, the opportunity to work with the young girls, help them grow their leadership skills, present their scholastics and also display a talent on stage as being the most rewarding.
“They’re an inspiration to me for sure, at such a young age,” she said.
As for the newly appointed winner, Grace has much to still consider about her future and what she would like to do. Self-described as a tree with so many branches of interest, she’s still deciding on her future plans. She shared that while Broadway would be her dream job, she’s hesitant about pursuing it because of the lifestyle and her desire and love for family.
By way of college, she is also still deciding and weighing options.
“I would love to go to Notre Dame, I’ve been there a lot,” she said. “The campus is beautiful and it has a great sports program. I’m not going to play sports in college, but just to be in the student section, it’s wild.”
And even if she didn’t wake up to see that medallion on Sunday morning, the teen said the experience was more than worth it.
“I think it’s a great opportunity, regardless of winning or losing,” she said of the DYW Program. “The experience is more than what you get when you win. Winning of course has its perks, but I’m going to remember the memories that we made at practices more.”
Grace Miller: Oakdale’s Distinguished Young Woman, $5,000; Talent Award, $400; Spirit Award, $400.
Taylor Hay: Second Place Finalist, $3,000; Scholastics Award, $400.
Jenna Sanders: Third Place Finalist, $2000; Community Service Award, $500; Self Expression Award, $400; Interview Award, $400.
Brooke Wheat: Fourth Place Finalist, $1,600; Fitness Award, $400.
Hazel Hunter: Fifth Place Finalist, $1,200.
Madison McDonald: Spirit Award, $400.