Shortly after graduation, Tiffany Yao, BFA ’19, took an unusual step. She entered a beauty pageant with her mother, Michelle Wu, EMBA ’12, and both took home top prizes. What started as a chance to try something new with her mom led to another competition that was far less conventional.
Yao went on to compete in the 2021 Miss Asian Pageant, which held its opening ceremony at U.N. headquarters in New York City. Each contestant was asked to give a speech on one of the U.N.’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which include eliminating poverty and building sustainable communities around the globe.
Out of 160 applicants, 63 contestants were selected to compete in five categories, including a fashion walk and talent portion. Yao finished as first runner-up overall, won the Champion of Speech award for her keynote about the importance of quality education and was named an advocate for the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Yao was born in Hawaii, where her parents met studying architecture, and then spent 10 years growing up in Hong Kong and China. She moved with her mother to St. Louis, where both eventually attended WashU. Here’s how she became a pageant winner:
The Miss Asian Pageant stood out to me because it placed so much value on academic research and presentation. I first started preparing for it while everything was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. I didn’t want to spend any more time waiting for things to return to normal to feel productive, and I thought it seemed like a great opportunity to get involved and learn more about the U.N., especially in a time of global crisis.
The focus of my keynote speech was Sustainable Development Goal No. 4: the importance of quality education, including the obstacles and efforts being made for improvement. I learned a lot of unsettling statistics, and it definitely gave me a sense of the urgency around the issue. As part of a news conference during the opening ceremony at the U.N., contestants could potentially be asked about any of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, so I prepared thoroughly for all of them.
For me, being an advocate means making an effort to spread awareness about these issues at a molecular level. I’ve had some profound conversations with my friends, my family and my community about what I learned from this experience. The pageant gave me a glimpse at this much bigger picture and helped me see how everything is connected, like I’m one droplet in this vast ocean. There’s so much more to learn, and I don’t ever want to stop being a student.
Right now, I’m taking courses to continue my career in creative and design work. I’ve mostly done graphic design and brand consulting, and I’d like to add more skills to my toolbox. User experience is a very popular and growing field, so I’m diving into that. I’ve also been invited to compete in upcoming international pageants, which could be a great future opportunity at the right time.