When 12-year-old Sarah Rose Summers asked her parents if she could compete in the National American Miss pageant, they gave her a major side eye.
“I was one of the shyest girls,” says Summers, now 23. “I was the one who latched onto my mom’s leg and bawled my eyes out when she tried to drop me at dance class. I wouldn’t make eye contact with strangers or speak in the classroom.”
Summers’ parents said yes, thinking she’d forget about the whole thing, but her interest persisted. Little did her family know that this was merely the first chapter in a storybook journey that would end with Summers being crowned Miss USA in May 2018—becoming the first woman from Nebraska to win the crown. (Summers had previously won the National American Miss Junior Teen title in 2010; she was also the first Nebraskan to win that honor.)
“I was the first to win from Nebraska then and now,” Summers says. “My goal after [National American Miss Junior Teen] was always to [represent] Nebraska on the Miss USA stage.”
Regarding her history-making Miss USA win, Summers is proud to have made her mark and hopes it will inspire Nebraska girls to reach for their own dreams.
“I’m so honored to have the opportunity to encourage them, that even if their dreams don’t seem attainable, they should chase them anyway—because here I am,” Summers says.
Summers, whose Miss USA win precipitated an immediate move to New York City, was born and raised in Papillion, surrounded by a tight-knit extended family.
“My whole family lives within 30 minutes from our house—meaning my grandparents, cousins, second cousins…I was very fortunate to be raised so close to family,” Summers says. “Being in Nebraska, you always have your feet firmly on the ground. You know your roots, you know your neighbors’ names, and it’s not that way everywhere. I’m grateful for growing up in Nebraska where you can form those relationships with everyone you see.”
In what sounds vaguely like a scene from the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Summers shares a story of her first time jogging through Central Park, greeting everyone she passed, just as she would back in Nebraska.
“I got a lot of crazy looks when I was smiling and waving at strangers in Central Park, but I got a few smiles back, so I’m just going to keep that up and bring that Nebraska joy to the city,” she says.
In the moments before being named in the top 15, Summers says she had butterflies in her stomach, but pride in her performance and proximity to good friends put her at ease.
“I knew that I had 110 percent been myself and felt strong in my performance. I was hoping to hear my name, but, if not, I was content and knew where to walk offstage,” Summers says. “I was really at peace and just soaking it up. Then I was called right after my friend, Miss New Jersey [Alexa Noone], so that was pretty amazing. I got to run down and hug her.”
Summers then advanced to the top 10—still hopeful, but at peace with any outcome. She maintained this feeling through the top two, which came down to her and one of her best Miss USA friends, Caelynn Miller-Keyes of North Carolina.
“We connected on a lot of levels, like being goal-driven women and having a strong faith. It was like a children’s book, the two of us being up there,” Summers says. “It was a whirlwind of emotions. I remember it up to that point, but then when they said ‘Nebraska’ I had to watch it back to really understand it all. I don’t remember crying. I remember falling to the ground and then Kára [McCullough], last year’s Miss USA, leaned down and said, ‘Can I crown you now?’ and I said, ‘Yes, of course, please do.’”
Summers’ entire family traveled to Shreveport, Louisana, for the Miss USA pageant, including her brother, Scott, who later texted: “I’ve been to about 15 pageants for you but I was not mentally prepared for five eliminations in 90 minutes. That was stressful. It’s usually a top 15, top 5, and then announcement of places. That was just brutal on your brother.”
While Summers and her family will have to prepare for another nail-biter when she competes in the Miss Universe pageant in late 2018, right now she’s focused on her newfound opportunity to impact others on a larger scale.
“I made a difference in Nebraska as Miss Nebraska USA and was already making a difference as Sarah Rose Summers, but this opportunity plunges me forward to be able to speak on topics I’m passionate about and to affect others and causes that I feel called to. To work with the Miss Universe Organization and have the opportunity to travel, meet people, and make connections is amazing,” Summers says.
Project Sunshine is one partner organization she’s excited to work with. They organize volunteers to comfort pediatric patients and their families in various medical settings—a cause near and dear to Summers personally and professionally.
“I connect deeply to [the Project Sunshine mission] because I was hospitalized at Children’s in Omaha when I was younger with something called ITP,” Summers says. “I was only there for a short time, thank goodness, but I remember how scary it was for my family and me.”
The experience propelled Summers to volunteer at hospitals in Omaha and Fort Worth, where she attended Texas Christian University and discovered her calling to become a certified child life specialist. After completing her schooling and clinical rotations, she sat for her certification exam in April 2018.
Summers’ advice for others who seek to reach their goals is to write them down, a practice she learned working part-time for Lululemon.
“Write your goals down, first and foremost. Then, if you’re bold enough, share them with others so they can help hold you accountable, and help drive you to that goal, and maybe even form strategies around how to make it happen,” Summers says.
While she earned her title as one of the world’s most beautiful women, Summers defines beauty holistically. She hopes to set a realistic, attainable, healthy example for girls and women of all ages.
“The Miss Universe mantra—‘confidently beautiful’—is about more than your figure, size, height, face structure, skin, or hair color. It’s being confident in who you are, from your looks to your beliefs, and knowing that you’re happy with who you are, proud of your accomplishments, and confident in your aspirations,” Summers says. “Beauty is so much deeper than physical attributes.”
To Summers, pageants are also about so much more than beauty.
“[The pageant] is an opportunity for like-minded, encouraging women to come together, get to know each other, share their stories, and become friends,” Summers says. “It’s just another outlet for us as women to empower each other.”
Visit missuniverse.com/missusa to learn more.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.