Syracuse Spotlight: Emily Mahana, Miss New York for America

I've had the pleasure of knowing Emily Mahana for a few years now. To say she is a superstar in our community is truly an understatement, with the various community initiatives she takes on. There is never a moment in her life where she sits back and is satisfied. She's hungry to make a difference in so many ways.

She dawns the title of Miss New York for America, and is getting ready to pass her crown down to the 2020 Miss New York for America on July 19th at the RIT Inn & Conference Center. She has also held the distinction of Miss Upstate New York, and competed in the Miss New York pageant a few years ago.

You've seen her out in public at a parade, numerous benefits, or simply volunteering in the community. I sat down with her for this exclusive interview (virtually, of course) as she enlightens us on all of these things that have made such an impact on her life.

You graduated from SU as an Engineering major. You were named Miss Upstate New York a few years ago and competed for the title of Miss New York. Did you ever imagine your life would take you down this path? What was your favorite memory?

If you were to tell 10 year old Emily that she would be an engineer and a pageant queen, there’s no way she would have believed you. I didn’t really consider engineering as my profession until I was a junior in high school and applying to college. I had been interested in architecture but didn’t have enough time to put together an artistic portfolio. So I thought civil engineering was close enough…right? While I questioned myself leading up to starting college, I knew right away that I had made the right choice. I owe most of what my life has become to my time in college at Syracuse University. I was able to come out of my shell and decided to start trying new things and having new experiences. Hence the pageant. I had always watched the Miss America and Miss USA pageants on TV in amazement. I figured, if I don’t do a pageant before I graduate and enter the real world, it probably won’t ever happen. I entered my first pageant as a senior in college, and to my surprise, ended up winning! Pageants have been a part of my life ever since, for over 2 years, and I couldn’t be more surprised or thrilled looking back on what my life has become in just a short amount of time.
There are so many memories that I treasure, but being crowned for the first time and having it be so unexpected is something I will always have engrained in my mind. I just remember standing there with my jaw on the floor, hearing my brother’s voice cheering for me over the crowd clapping, and just standing there motionless and in awe. It was the very beginning of my pageant experience and I’ll cherish that forever.

You were most recently named Miss New York for America. Tell us about this experience and how you’ve grown preparing for it.

Being crowned Miss New York for America taught me a lot about myself. It was year of tremendous personal growth. It was the first time I had ever held a state title, and at the same time, was my first full year of working full-time as an engineer. I was forced to learn how to manage my time efficiently, making the most of every free moment. When I wasn’t working, I was traveling for appearances. And if I wasn’t travelling or at an appearance, I was planning for the next appearance. I learned who my true friends are, and who was actually there to support me. Lastly, and most importantly, I learned my limits. I’ve always tried to go above and beyond, but that wasn’t always the best for my mental and emotional health. I learned it is okay to turn down opportunities if it meant having to sacrifice my sleep and overall wellbeing.

What is STEM education and why has it had such a significance in your life?

STEM education encompasses learning about the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. As an engineer, I began to realize very early on that I was a minority in my college classes. As most people know, or assume, there are far less women in the STEM fields as compared to men. I luckily found my way to being an engineer almost by chance, changing my interests from interior design, to architecture, and finally to engineering during high school. But I began to think, what if girls and young women were exposed to female role models who were able to teach them about STEM earlier than high school? Would that impact their interests and career plan later in life? That is why I visit schools, libraries, and museums, interacting with children and showing them fun projects that all involve STEM concepts. The earlier children are exposed to these ideas, the more time they have to invest in learning and further explore how exciting working in the STEM fields can be.

You’ve recently done a lot of modeling work, joining Launch Models and Talent just a few weeks ago. What does it mean to be part of something like that, and what are you hoping to accomplish with your modeling work?

It’s been such a whirlwind of a year, especially since joining a modelling and talent agency. It wasn’t something I ever expected to happen, which makes it all so much more exciting. I’ve always seen pageants and modelling as just a fun hobby and something that will help expand my network, but it’s an exciting thought thinking that it could potentially become something more than just something to do in my spare time. I really love my job as an engineer, but am looking forward to gaining experience in modelling and acting. I’m honestly just hoping to meet some new people and have fun experiences, whether that’s doing photoshoots, or walking the runway, or even being in a TV or radio commercial!

It’s been a difficult few months, but you have been active in the community. What is the most inspirational moment or message you’ve taken from any community work you’ve done during this time?

It has been so inspiring to see the outpouring of love and support over the past few months. From COVID-19 to the death of George Floyd, it’s apparent that the world is crying out for the simple things: love and support. It has been so incredible to see my friends and family helping each other out and providing help to strangers. I feel like I have become so much more kind and empathetic since the beginning of the year. Even though these times have been trying, I believe they have taught the world to just be a little bit more kind to one another.

I know you have been close with your family through all of this. How important have they been to motivating you to be the best person you can be?

My family has been so instrumental in keeping me grounded and supporting me, not only this year, but always. My family unit is small, which keeps us all connected and always rooting for one another. Through the ups and the downs, we are there for each other no matter what. I truly believe I wouldn’t have been able to have such a successful and positive year serving as Miss New York for America without the constant love and motivation from my mom, my brother, and my boyfriend. I’m so thankful for them!

What message would you give to young individuals who are looking to chase their dreams?

The one lesson I have learned is to always ask. If you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Growing up, I was constantly scared of rejection and negative feedback, so I didn’t try or ask if there was a chance the answer could be no. But I’ve learned that the situation can only improve by asking. Whether it’s for your career or your hobby or even just in your personal life – ask for what you want. The worst someone can say is no, and guess what? There are so many others you can ask where the answer could be yes. Don’t let your fear of rejection stop you from getting where you want to be.

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