Environmental Factor, August 2005, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Miss Black Arizona: Brains and Beauty
By Colleen Chandler
Rachel Wilhite is nothing if not tenacious. She could probably glide through life on her good looks and cheerful disposition, but she'd rather use her intellectual abilities and her drive to get her where she wants to be.
A fourth-year doctoral student in epidemiology at the University of Arizona, she is spending the summer in North Carolina as part of the Summers of Discovery program at NIEHS. She is also the reigning Miss Black Arizona, and will compete in the Miss Black USA 2005 Scholarship Pageant in Washington, D.C., Aug. 7.
Wilhite's platform is a topic near and dear to her heart. It also reflects her professional ambitions: mentoring African-American girls through the promotion of mathematics and science education. She intends to ensure there is a steady supply of African-American women involved in science and math, and particularly in biomedical research.
Wilhite earned a bachelor's degree in statistics and mathematics from Xavier University, and a master's in public health with a concentration on biostatistics from the University of Arizona's Zuckerman College of Public Health. She is an adjunct professor at Pima Community College in Tucson.
She is focusing on statistical programming, teaching herself statistical languages. She works in Darryl Zeldin's lab, where she is getting some hands-on experience that she says will help her become a better quantitative epidemiologist.
In her role as Miss Black Arizona, the 27-year-old Wilhite raised funds for the Children's Miracle Network hospitals in Arizona, including Phoenix Children's Hospital and Tucson Medical Center. She also appeared at Juneteenth celebrations in the state.
The winner of the national pageant receives, among other things, a $5,000 scholarship. Four runners up will also receive scholarship money. The judging criteria for the national contest consist of a personal interview, an on-stage question-and-answer session, fitness, talent and evening gown competitions. For the talent competition, Wilhite will play the piano. She is classically trained, but also plays the flute, piccolo, clarinet and oboe.
Wilhite said she first found out about the contest through a church bulletin. The scholarship money caught her eye. She had never before been in a pageant. She points out that the swimsuit competition is replaced with a fitness category in this pageant. She describes herself as naturally shy, but she comes across as warm, naturally friendly and unpretentious. She said it was a very humbling experience to compete at the state level. She learned a lot about black history in Arizona as part of that process. As for the competitive element, she said her biggest competition comes from within.
"I'm always trying to outdo me," she said with a smile.
African-American women come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and while beauty is an element that should be embraced, there is much more to pageants that assessing beauty, Wilhite said. With a focus on health, fitness and education, the contests offer an opportunity to showcase African-American women at their best, she said.
She said she will find a way to give back to the African-American community, offering guidance and opportunities to others just as people did for her. That, she said, is the only way to change the existing structure of professional organizations to fit the demographic makeup of society. African-American women now know they can become doctors and lawyers, and Wilhite wants to make sure they also know they can also become researchers.