Rutgers Senior Will Compete for Title of Miss America

Rutgers Senior Will Compete for Title of Miss America

Hometown girl makes good: Cierra Kaler-Jones will be supported by friends and family at the Sept. 14 pageant

As Rutgers student Cierra Kaler-Jones heads to the Miss America pageant to compete as Miss New Jersey, she is only a stone’s throw from her home in Galloway Township. But despite living minutes from Atlantic City, she has never attended the famous pageant. The daughter of two casino workers who at one time both worked three jobs to support their family, Kaler-Jones grew up watching the show on television since her parents could not take time off to accompany her.

Cierra, the reigning Miss New Jersey, will compete for the title of Miss America on Sunday, September 14.
Courtesy of Miss America pageant
“It feels like a Cinderella story for me to be participating in a pageant that I watched all my life. The hometown girl is actually competing for the crown. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” says Kaler-Jones, a senior majoring in social work. She is the second African American to win the title of Miss New Jersey after Suzette Charles in 1983. The Miss America 2014 pageant will air on ABC live from Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, Sunday, Sept. 14, beginning at 9 p.m. EDT.

The hometown girl will have plenty of support. Over 100 tickets have already been purchased by friends, family, members of her former high school community and Rutgers supporters. The principal of her Absegami High School will attend the talent portion of her competition. Multitudes of casino workers who are friends with her parents already have their tickets in hand to cheer her on.

Contestants arrived in Atlantic City on Sept. 1 for two weeks of publicity, hard work and fun excursions. Last year, contestants attended a Phillies game and were hosted for dinners at the casinos. For the famous “Show Us Your Shoes Parade” up and down the boardwalk, contestants dress in their best representation of their state. Kaler-Jones will wear a “very cool” Scarlett Knight outfit and promote the state’s reputation as the birthplace of college football. The first U.S. intercollegiate football game occurred between Princeton and Rutgers in 1869.

All 53 contestants recently came back from a weeklong trip to Orlando, Fla., for bonding and the creation of promotional videos. One of this year’s video themes will be to celebrate Atlantic City as the 75-year-old home of the pageant.  While in Orlando, Kaler-Jones roomed with Miss Massachusetts and Miss Kentucky and thoroughly enjoyed the exchange of state culture.

Cierra, age 5.
Photo: Courtesy of Cierra Kaler-Jones
"It was so much fun. The first question was always, 'What is your state like?' Where else can you gain friends from all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands?  It was an incredible to be surrounded by so many outstanding young women, and I know that they will remain my close friends long after the pageant,” she relates.

Ranking in the top 10 percent of her class, Kaler-Jones is a member of the nationally ranked Rutgers University Dance Team. She won the judges over with her platform of "Empowering Today's Youth Through Arts" and her dance to Beyoncé’s "Listen."  Kaler-Jones was born with a developmental dysplasia of the hips and had to wear a Pavlik harness in order for the hip ball and socket joint to develop correctly. Dance was a tool to overcome her hardship, and it gave her a goal to work toward.

She founded The Arts Empowerment Project, which uses visual and performing arts to empower economically disadvantaged young women and girls. A first-generation college student in her family, Kaler-Jones hopes to become an education law and policy advocate. She founded the Rutgers campus chapter of She's the First, a nonprofit organization that sponsors girls' education in developing nations. She has interned with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, and the Office of the Attorney General-Criminal Justice Division. She also graduated from the Institute for Women's Leadership Scholars Program.

As research assistant for the New Jersey Child Welfare Training Partnership through the Institute for Families at the School of Social Work, Kaler-Jones assists with the training data component of an initiative to train New Jersey child protective workers.

“At our first meeting, Cierra really impressed us with her poise and understanding of the pieces that go together in keeping a family and a community healthy. She has taken her own experiences and skills and channeled them into a way to create positive change for others, and that makes her special and successful,” says Theresa McCutcheon, associate program manager at the partnership.

In addition, McCutcheon and other staff members have been impressed with the way Kaler-Jones forms bonds with the other contestants.

“She has reshaped our view of pageants by the way the other contestants become like sisters to her. She is able to create a community in that group, and that speaks to who she is and builds on her strengths as a social worker. We will be cheering her on and wishing her a bright future,” adds McCutcheon.


For media inquiries, contact Beth Salamon at bsalamon@ssw.rutgers.edu or 908-217-7707.