The Distinguished Young Woman of Tennessee program has a new face leading this year as Nikki Wilks joins long-time leader Traci Fant as co-chair.
“I came through the program in Loudon County,” Wilks said. “I was their 2007 representative when it was still Junior Miss.”
When someone from her hometown became the judge’s chair, she was asked to serve as an assistant on the team.
“When I was in judging, I wasn’t really allowed to be involved or know the girls at all,” Wilks said.
Wilks pointed out she is looking forward to her new role as co-chair because it will allow her to get to know the students who are competing.
“I love this program so much, and it is a privilege and an honor to give back to it,” Wilks said.
Fant is showing Wilks all the logistical pieces that go into running the state program. Many of the conversations before this week have been via conference calls. Wilks said it is “great” to have mentors helping her in her first year as co-chair.
Fant had asked Wilks if she would serve as chair of the program a previous year. Wilks declined because she had
just started a master’s degree program in Memphis where she still lives. However, this was not the first time the subject had been brought up. Members of the program committee told her while she was working on her bachelor degree, they would like to see her as a future chair of the program.
“This program has given me so much. When I meet new people today or people give me compliments, I’m like, ‘Well really, you need to thank the Distinguished Young Women program,’“ Wilks said.
She said she would not be who she is today if it was not for her participation in DYW.
This year’s state program kicked off Sunday with Wilks and Fant giving the participants an overview of what the week will entail. Wilks said she had not been sure what the first day would be like.
“This is my first year back to [helping out with] state in probably two or three years,” Wilks said. “They have changed a lot since the last time I came through.”
Wilks said she did know it would be a little overwhelming because there would be four separate groups of people wanting to get their questions answered. These include the participants, their parents, host families and DYW committee members.
The new co-chair has no plans to change the location of the state competition.
“I love the fact that the program is in Cleveland. I love the fact that this community rallies around this program and really wants to support it,” Wilks said.
Changing the name of the program from Junior Miss to Distinguished Young Woman has been good for the program, Wilks stressed.
“We’ve kind of gone back to the heart of what this program values in the ‘Be Your Best Self’ platform … which I really love because the ‘Be Your Best Self’ platform is simply a rewording of the scored categories that the girls compete in,” Wilks said.
The competition encourages girls to be their best in fitness, interview skills, self-expression, academics and presenting their talent to others. Wilks said she enjoys seeing when a participant understands how the scored categories translate into needed life skills.
“That’s why I liked this program. I’m not a pageant girl. I’m not a thin girl, and this program was hard for me,” Wilks said. “I appreciate the fact that their looking at [being your best self] and they are highlighting that more now, almost even more than the competition. That’s what we want to do. We want to help empower girls to be leaders in their communities and the ‘Be Your Best Self’ platform does that more than a week at state, or two months at local or two weeks at nationals could ever do.”
Wilks said she was encouraged to participate in the 2007 program by people at her church. Beth Brakebill, whose daughter had participated in the program, was at the forefront of those well-wishers.
“Her and her family invested a lot in me and really encouraged me to participate,” Wilks said.
Despite joining the local program late, Wilks was able to catch up. She noted she was allowed to join late because they did not have any representation from her high school.
She said the fact that she was a dancer helped her catch up.
Wilks moved to Memphis to complete her master’s degree as part of the Memphis Teacher Residency which pays for participants’ master’s degree if they then teach for three years in the Memphis school system.
She recently completed her first year teaching high school English at Kingsbury High School.
Wilks said she plans to stay in Memphis longer than the three years required. She hopes to help establish local DYW programs in the area because few exist.