Distinguished Young Women: An inside perspective


2022 DYW participants ready for their debut. Photo courtesy of Rachel Sheppard.

Every year, the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley welcomes spring with spectacular performances from candidates for Distinguished Young Women of Lewiston, Clarkston and Asotin. As the 2023 performance approaches, ask yourself this question: What comes to mind when you think DYW? A contest? A pageant?
In reality, DYW is so much more.
Formerly known as America’s Junior Miss, the program was founded in 1958 as a way to reward the accomplishments of young women in high school who were looking to pursue higher education. Today, the scholarship program is the largest and oldest of its kind, but according to distinguishedyw.org, its beginnings were actually quite humble.
In the 1950s, the city of Mobile, Alabama, hosted an annual festival to celebrate the beautiful azalea flowers found along the Gulf Coast in the spring. The Azalea Trail Maids were a select group of female high school seniors chosen to represent the area at this event. Each one was generously awarded a scholarship donated by the local Jaycee family. Since scholarship opportunities available to girls were scarce in this era, the Jaycees soon found themselves receiving applications from all over the country. Seeing a need for programs of this kind to be available nationwide, visionaries jumped on the idea and DYW was born.
Participants are evaluated in categories such as scholastics (25%), interview (25%), talent (20%), fitness (15%) and self-expression (15%). Contestants put in roughly 56 hours in practices alone. Additional time is required for mock interviews, community service projects and extended scholarship opportunities.
As a current DYW contestant, I can say that every DYW candidate puts in enormous time and effort, and we gain much more than a chance to win a contest or earn a title. The categories built into the program are specifically designed to not only highlight the girls’ spectacular achievements, but to equip them with essential life skills as they prepare to be judged.
The scholastics category gives girls the incentive to put time and effort into their studies and extracurricular activities. It teaches the importance of hard work, study skills and community involvement. The interview category prepares them for workplace interviews that will come later on in life. It pushes them to stay up-to-date on current events, keeps them alert about the world around them and allows them to explore their personal beliefs as they face controversial questions. The talent category lets participants explore their interests, learn what they are good at and express themselves in a way that is unique to them. The fitness category helps keep each contestant in peak physical shape and teaches the importance of regular exercise. And finally, the self-expression category allows each girl to showcase her personality, build self-confidence and learn to keep calm under pressure.
A former DYW participant and Lewiston title winner Annika Huff shared her experience.
“DYW has given me a confidence that is unmistakable,” Huff said. “Everything about the program pushes you outside your comfort zone and my experience was no different. Whether it was learning a fitness routine at state in two days or singing in front of a crowd for the first time in my life, DYW pushed me to my limits.”
“By challenging me to become the best version of myself, I gained a confidence and sense of capability that was completely new to me,” Huff added. “I’ve had the opportunity to implement that confidence in every aspect of my life and it has truly impacted and will continue to impact everything that I do.”
The DYW participants also build strong connections with each other as they face hardships and overcome challenges together. The bonding that occurs behind the scenes brings girls together from all different backgrounds. Regardless of whether you enter the program knowing everyone or no one at all, you will ultimately find yourself surrounded by a supportive community of friends that feel like family.
The program is filled with both laughter and tears, but the experience is unforgettable and life-changing. The complexity of the experience cannot simply be defined as a pageant or a contest because it’s so much more. It’s preparation for the future, involvement in the community, meeting new people, trying new things, expanding your comfort zone and building self-confidence. It’s not simply about highlighting the physical attributes of a contestant. It’s about empowering young women, helping them find their sense of identity and self, shedding light on their best qualities and achievements and inspiring future generations of girls.
Seyi Arogundade, a former DYW participant and LHS first runner-up, said it best: “I think the DYW program has given me a lot of confidence in who I am, and all the abilities I possess. It was also one of the most difficult things I have ever done. I threw myself completely out of my comfort zone, and being able to come out on the other side reinforced that I am so much stronger and capable than I originally thought.”