Grace Stanke x’23 welcomes challenges. In fact, she thrives on them. Instead of hanging up her bow after fumbling through a violin recital, 13-year-old Stanke enrolled in her local Miss America’s Outstanding Teen competition to hone her performance skills. When the engineering-savvy 16-year- old was told that there was no future in the field’s nuclear studies, she dedicated her college education to studying how nuclear energy could shape the future. And when she sensed public apprehension regarding the notion of “nuclear” and reluctance to embrace it as a clean alternative to fossil fuels, Stanke made it the platform on which she propelled herself to victory in America’s most glamorous scholarship competition. As Miss America 2023, Stanke is dedicated to partnering with STEM-industry leaders around the world and inspiring the young scientists who will inherit it in order to ensure a sustainably fueled and equitable future for all.
Your violin brought you to the Miss America organization, and a victory with your violin during Miss America 2023 helped you secure the crown. How has this experience changed your life?
I’ve earned almost $70,000 in scholarships. I now don’t have to worry about the rest of my bachelor’s, and prior to Miss America, I wasn’t considering a master’s degree. Now I’m considering a master’s degree, that’s for sure. That has been life changing. But beyond that, it really helped me develop professional skills in terms of interviews and public speaking and confidence — just little things like standing up straight. ... I am not afraid to go into engineering interviews anymore.
You’re often asked about the differences between being Miss America and being a nuclear engineering student. How do these worlds naturally overlap for you?
I think the nuclear industry needs Miss America, and I think Miss America needs people from engineering and STEM backgrounds. And it’s great because I’m kind of meeting in the middle of these two different worlds coming together. It’s exciting because the nuclear industry [is] looking for more women to get involved; we’re looking for more diverse backgrounds of people and awesome people getting into this field. As Miss America, I’m able to represent some individuals that are going to go on to do that. But at Miss America, we’re always looking for different ways to increase funding toward scholarships. We’re looking for other ways to continue promoting and supporting women, and the engineering industry is a great source for that.
A big part of your platform is being a role model to young women and girls in STEM. What message are you trying to deliver that you needed to hear when you were a young scientist?
Just be 100 percent you. Don’t try to be me; don’t try to be another C-suite woman or something along those lines, because not only does [being true to yourself] make you better as a human being, but it also makes a better team of engineers or scientists. When we have people that are comfortable in their own skin and confident in their stances and their beliefs, then they’re not afraid to point out the errors and point out those flaws. They’re not afraid to speak up in that group setting, and that’s a powerful tool in the working world and as we continue to move forward as a society in general. So, my biggest piece of advice to young women everywhere is to not be afraid to be who you are.
Your social impact initiative is called Clean Energy, Cleaner Future. What does that entail?
It’s really about fighting misconceptions surrounding nuclear energy. Right now, America’s at a crucial point where we’re acknowledging how climate change is playing a role in our society, but there are also economic benefits to switching over to zero- carbon energy in the long term. It’s convincing people to take that initial investment, that initial step to get into that process. That’s what I’m focusing on: the business side of things is working with businessmen and administrators and politicians to say, “Hey, this is what we need to be moving toward. This is the future we need with nuclear energy at the center of it all.” I firmly believe nuclear energy is a great replacement for that baseload power that is supplied by gas and fossil fuels because nuclear energy doesn’t rely on the outside environment. It’s constant, it’s reliable, it’s efficient, it’s effective, and it’s safe. And that’s something that’s a powerful tool moving forward.
That kind of forethought stands to benefit people well beyond the United States.
Miss America is a representative of a global superpower. I’m not the president — I’m not
that — but I am a voice for the youth. Miss America typically doesn’t do international appearances, but for me, personally, this is something that America needs to take the lead on, and as a representative of America, I’m not afraid to take that lead and that stance on switching over to zero-carbon energy and looking at how we, especially as a superpower that contributes a large amount of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, can take that first step forward and become leaders because all it takes is one person moving in the right direction to inspire the rest of the world and show that it is possible. So on the international spectrum, I’m talking to engineers and professionals in the energy industry across the globe about how nuclear can play a role in their country and in their hometowns.
You previously held the titles of Miss Madison, Miss Badgerland, and Miss Wisconsin. What does it mean to represent your home state on the national stage?
There’s a lot to say about being brought up in Wisconsin and that generosity, that kindness, that looking out for each other and supporting each other and believing the best in people that Wisconsin has. That carries through into a lot of other perspectives in life: making us hard workers, making us people that want to do good in the world. And I think that’s really awesome to be able to represent that. I’m also not the only person that is in the competition system at UW–Madison. There are many other girls that attend or graduated from [UW–Madison] that are competing for Miss Wisconsin this year, and that’s really awesome because we’re a scholarship organization at our core. We award $5 million in scholarships a year to women across the country, and having so many of those women right in Wisconsin, at [UW– Madison], is truly remarkable because we’re creating great women for the world and preparing the world for these great women.