“None of my teachers believed I could get into college,” says Shruti Nagarajan ’14. “My friends laughed. I don’t want anyone to feel that way. I hope that I can be that one person that can tell a young person that they can do it.”
Nagarajan, who is originally from the U.S. territory of Guam, won the Miss Rhode Island contest in May with a platform of “Upward Mobility: College Access for Low-Income and Minority Students” and a talent for Bollywood fusion dance. She believes she is the first woman from Guam to participate in the Miss America Pageant.
Nagarajan’s road from Guam to Miss Rhode Island started with a mango tree, ran through Brown, and, she hopes, will lead to a Miss America crown. When Nagarajan was a high school freshman, her mango tree died. “I was very young and very upset that my tree had died. Guam problems.” She laughs. Nagarajan cut the tree open and found that it was hollow. The problem was a borer insect infestation. She devised a novel pest management system that would control the borer population. Her system not only worked but was a finalist at the Intel International Science Fair in 2007.
For her college essay, Nagarajan wrote about her mango tree. Brown was one among many colleges she applied to. “From Guam, all U.S. schools sound the same,” says Nagarajan, “and I couldn’t afford to visit.” The Brown admission officers were so taken by her ingenuity in fixing her tree that they wrote her a personalized acceptance letter. This impressed Nagarajan, and in 2010 she arrived on College Hill.
Yet it had been only by chance that she’d written about the mango tree. She had no college adviser and neither did her peers, most of whom would never leave Guam, much less attend an American university. When Nagarajan started at Brown she was shocked by how far behind she was. She studied public policy and education because she “wanted to know why [she] was different” and why geography and socioeconomic status affect access to college.
After graduation Nagarajan took a job with the investment advising firm Cambridge Associates. She loves it, but started to feel it was taking over her life. Unhappy with herself, having gained weight and lost her self-confidence, Nagarajan decided she needed another positive outlet. She ended up jumping into pageantry after discovering that two Brown women—master's student Alexandra Curtis and Ivy DePew ’14 MPA—had won the past two Miss Rhode Island pageants. With zero pageant experience, Nagarajan took the leap.
Nagarajan wants to use her platform as Miss Rhode Island to boost college acceptance of low-income students. She plans to work with College Visions, a Rhode Island–based nonprofit founded by Simon Moore ’00, which provides advice and resources to low-income and first-generation college-bound students to help them enroll, persist, and graduate. By both publicizing the program and working directly with students as a mentor, Nagarajan aims to make a real difference.