Stephanie Wonchala, a 20-year-old natural science major at UAA, was crowned Miss Alaska 2006 in June.
Wonchala didn’t always have what it takes to be perfect.
“There was a time in Stephanie’s life when she wore a back brace, wore braces on her teeth, wore glasses, and was a little heavy,” said Pia Wonchala, Stephanie Wonchala’s mother.
“Stephanie was not happy about her looks, like any teenager would be. But she became involved in the special needs classroom in high school, and she soon realized how fleeting her condition was. Stephanie realized that being healthy, and being able to do what you want, is a gift that many students don’t appreciate.”
Wonchala is a UAA student on hold. She is taking a break from school because of Miss Alaska responsibilities, and to prepare for the Miss America pageant.
She is also implementing her Miss Alaska platform, “Helping Special Needs Students Excel: Practicing Inclusion.”
As Miss Alaska, she will advocate for community involvement in the Special Olympics, which she has volunteered with in the past. She is also working on implementing a Partners Club at Fireweed Elementary.
Wonchala said Partners Clubs are programs funded by the Special Olympics that brings special needs students together with other students for social activities such as pizza parties or going to the movies.
“I’ve seen the improvement in those with intellectual disabilities, in their communication skills and social cognition,” Wonchala said of her inclusion platform. “They just do better in school. Then those with regular education needs grow as people, because they learn how to work with someone who’s not necessarily right at their social or mental level.”
Wonchala found out about pageants from a teacher at Chugiak High School, and entered her first pageant when she was 18. She said she was motivated to enter the local pageants that lead up to the Miss Alaska and Miss America pageants by the potential for winning scholarships.
This year, the Miss Alaska pageant gave Wonchala a four-year in-kind tuition waiver from the University of Alaska, and gave the first ten runners-up a one-year tuition waiver.
Contestants in many other Miss America state pageants must first win a local pageant to enter the state competition. But in Alaska, any unmarried woman between the ages of 17 and 24 who is an Alaskan resident and U.S. citizen may enter.
Wonchala said women entering the Miss Alaska pageant should also be willing to apply hard work and dedication to the project. She participated in the Miss Alaska pageant four years before winning.
Of potential Miss Alaska participants, Wonchala said, “As long as her talent is decent enough on stage, and she can handle an interview with the judges, she has an opportunity to become Miss Alaska.”
Wonchala said she learned from experience over the years how to improve her performance at the state-wide pageants.
She didn’t think about the other contestants, and focused instead on strengthening her own pageant skills. Wonchala said she worked hard on communication skills, physical fitness and overall improvement until competition day.
She said the best thing to do on competition day is relax.
“No stressing, no listening to AM radio will get you more prepared,” she said. “So before I go into competition, I just let it all go, and dance in the car.”
Eagle River resident and business owner Sandy Butera said she has known Wonchala and socially and through work, and has attended Wonchala’s pageants.
“Stephanie was always keeping up on current events so she was well-informed going into the pageant,” Butera said.
Being Miss Alaska is more than wearing a crown and looking pretty.
“Being Miss Alaska is about being flexible,” Wonchala said. “It’s about reaching out to your community and helping others realize that they can make a difference.”
Being Miss Alaska also means participating in the Miss America pageant, which will be hosted in a reality TV show format on Country Music Television in January.
“I want Alaska to be happy with my Miss America performance,” Wonchala said. “That’s my goal.”
|Miss Alaska 2006:
Favorite Movie: American Beauty
Favorite Musicians: Lemon Jelly and Patsy Cline
Favorite Food: Spring Rolls
Favorite Beverage: Water or Chai Tea
Favorite Vacation Spot: Germany
Favorite place in the Alaska Outdoors: Girdwood or Hope
Hobbies: Piano, dance, hiking and scrapbooking
Ideal qualities in a friend: Trustworthy, loyal, funny and easy to talk to