Why Miss America found her niche at a conservative college

The 2011 Miss American winner is now a sophomore at the small, conservative Patrick Henry College. Teresa Scanlan is setting her sights on Harvard Law School and the US presidency.

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Miss America 2011, Teresa Scanlan, is now attending Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va.. To an outsider, the youngest Miss America winner mixing with fellow students at an ultra-conservative college may be a jarring contrast. But it’s proved a good fit for Scanlan.

It's a startling contrast to some observers — the glamorous, bikini-clad Miss America from 2011, Teresa Scanlan, finding her home at the tiny, super-conservative Patrick Henry College. The school requires students to dress modestly and "seek parental counsel when pursuing a romantic relationship."

But the match has been a good one. Scanlan returned to campus in late August to begin her sophomore year. Among the things she loves about her classmates and her campus: "I've never had to sign an autograph, and I've never had to take a picture. Here, I can be just another student," she said.

Blending in is not always easy for Scanlan, who won the Miss America Contest at 17, representing Nebraska. The youngest Miss America in more than 70 years, she spent a year fulfilling her duties and enrolled at Patrick Henry in 2012. She says the school's workload matched the grueling schedule as Miss America.

The school was established in 2000 with the goal of giving home-schooled Christian conservatives a foundation to help them effect change in government, the law and journalism.

The school started with 90 students and a single major — government. It is still a tiny campus in the outer suburbs of Washington, D.C., but now has 320 students and five majors, including journalism, literature and history. The SAT scores of its students are comparable to top-tier state universities.

Scanlan, who came from a homeschooling family, says she wanted to go to Patrick Henry ever since she was 8.

She said she's frustrated by stereotypes that some hold about Patrick Henry students. She recalled a recent photo essay published about the school that she felt went out of its way to depict students as cloistered weirdos. The reality, she said, is that while the students are Christian, they come from a variety of backgrounds.

"There's this idea that we don't struggle with the same problems, that we don't understand real world problems ... that everyone comes from wonderful, happy families, that we're close-minded and brainwashed. That kind of pushes my buttons," she said.

The degree to which some people are willing to make snap judgments about her has occasionally taken her aback. As a teenager, she admits her schedule as Miss America and some of the accompanying expectations, wore on her. The negativity she faced from anonymous Internet critics was hurtful.

"To have someone look at a picture of you and decide just based on that picture that they hate you, and that they're going to tell the world that they hate you — that takes some getting used to," she said.

During her year as Miss America, she began to feel depressed and, at times, even suicidal. The depression continued during her freshman year, she said, when she found her coursework grueling, with a heavy emphasis on reading and writing. She earned a 3.75 grade-point average, but was disappointed because she had set a goal of a 3.9 or higher, which she feels she needs to get accepted into Harvard Law School.

She reached out to her parents for help during her spring semester, and she's now taking fewer classes and worrying less about others' expectations.

"I'm finally starting to let go of some of the stress, some of the responsibility," she said.

While she loves her school, she said she has occasionally received criticism from some there who feel the Miss America pageant, particularly the swimsuit competition, is not compatible with a Christian lifestyle because it shows too much skin or objectifies women. Scanlan respectfully disagrees.

"I have never violated my conscience. I was never compromising my morals," she said. "For myself, I have never believed it's wrong for a female to wear a swimsuit that would show the same amount of skin a man. It's a bit of a double standard."

The school's founder and chancellor, Mike Farris, also said he received sporadic complaints that Scanlan's status as a Miss America was supposedly contrary to the school's code and values.

"I don't view getting into the pageant world to be incompatible with Christian values," said Farris — who made his name as a lawyer defending homeschooler families.

Farris never had any doubts that Scanlan would be a good ambassador for the school. Farris sensed she could be a starter on Patrick Henry's Moot Court team, which Farris coaches and regularly wins national championships.

"She's very bright, a great communicator," Farris said, noting she placed third in a regional in Moot Court championships as a freshman. "Yeah, no doubt I expect a national championship out of her."

Kira Clark, a Moot Court teammate of Scanlan's and now a roommate, described Scanlan as "a caring, incredibly ambitious, smart, compassionate person who puts her friends first."

On the small campus, she said students don't dwell on the fact that Scanlan was Miss America.

"We see her as a sister we can be proud of, rather than a celebrity we can be taking advantage of," Clark said.

Despite her plans to reduce stress, Scanlan remains ambitious. On her LinkedIn profile, she lists herself, among other things, as "2028 presidential candidate." She would be 35, the constitutional minimum to serve as president.

Farris, who designed the school with the idea of launching Christian conservatives into the public sphere, said Scanlan and many other Patrick Henry students set such goals and he encourages them to aim high.

"If they mess up and only get to be governors and senators, I'll live with it," Farris said.

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