When Westminster’s Elena Rippeon traveled to Alabama for two weeks this summer to compete as Maryland’s representative, it felt a little like starting college all over again.
“You can come in thinking: ‘Oh, I’m not going to be as smart as these people. I’m not as prepared, I didn’t go to this private prep school, but you have to realize that they chose you for a reason,” she said.
Rippeon was named one of the eight finalists from the group of 50 and was recognized for category awards in interview, scholastics and talent.
Distinguished Young Women, founded in 1958 and previously known as America’s Junior Miss, is a scholarship program that has awarded more than $65 million in cash and college scholarships throughout the country.
Rising high school seniors are judged in scholastic, interview, talent, fitness and self-expression categories.
About a month after the competition ended, Rippeon took time to reflect on her experience with the Times.
“I think that one of the really important things coming out of the competition is you learn how to be confident in yourself without comparing yourself to the other participants,” she said.
“The vast majority of the girls that are down there are very intelligent and very talented, so it can be difficult to have faith that you’ve prepared really well and you’re ready for the competition. Over those two weeks, you really learn how to just relax and have a good time and not try to prove that we’re better than anyone else. Let it happen.”
In the first of the two weeks, participants toured southern Alabama and met with the competition’s sponsors and affiliates.
For Rippeon, who is interested in the medical field, a visit to the USA Mitchell Cancer Institute in Mobile was particularly fascinating.
She is a 2018 graduate of Francis Scott Key High School and now attends Duke University where she intends to study biomedical engineering and electrical engineering.
Outside of meeting influential leaders and touring local institutions, the girls took time to visit the beach and go line dancing.
The second week was reserved for rehearsal and production. Rippeon worked on her talent presentation, a performance of Weber’s Second Clarinet Concerto.
She had previously performed in ensembles, but it’s less common to find solo music for the clarinet.
“I really had to expand my artistic horizons,” she said.
Each of the judges had a different background, so she had to find a piece that would perform well for those trained in music and those that were not.
Audrey Cimino, executive director of the Community Foundation of Carroll County, said Rippeon is a talented musician and a genuine leader with good sense. She said Rippeon may have had some doubts about the competition when she first started, but took the opportunity and ran with it.
“She will be a serious leader,” Cimino said. “Whatever she’s going to do, she’ll do it beautifully.”
The night of the finals was nerve-wracking. The state representative performed an opening number before the judges announced the eight finalists.
In that moment, “It was terrifying,” she said. “I was halfway relieved that I had made it through that initial part of the competition, but I also had that moment of, ‘Oh no, I have to go through the fitness number again.’ ”
Aaryan Morrison, of Indiana, was named the Distinguished Young Woman of America for 2018.
Rippeon gives credit to Brooke Nixon, The Distinguished Young Woman of Carroll County, for her advice on public speaking.
Much like writing an essay, “When you go to give an answer … what you want to do is state your answer, justify it and then provide an explanation,” Rippeon said.
Competing has also helped her come out of her shell.
“A lot of my friends can probably tell you I’m infamous for being a very quiet person,” she said. “I really learned how to talk with people and speak in front of people.”
During her weeks in Alabama, she said the group of East Coast representative she spent time with was very outgoing.
She formed a bond with Valerie Trapp, of Florida, who went on to win second runner-up in the competition when the two shared a host family during the competition. The group spent a lot of time laughing and sharing ice cream.
Of the program, she said, “It was an incredible experience. It really defined my last two years of high school, and I would strongly recommend it to anyone considering the program.”
“There’s so much more to it than the scholarship money.” At the highest levels, working with her mentors, “even if you don’t win any scholarship money at the national competition, you still have all of those benefits from all of the things that you’ve been able to learn,” she said.
Kara Iwanowski, of Bel Air, was selected as the Distinguished Young Woman of Maryland for 2019 and will compete in Alabama next summer.