Acceptance, inclusion, individuality and service -- these are the ties that bind three UNT students in their quest for competition titles. Whether it's Miss Texas, Ms. Wheelchair Texas or Miss Denton County, all three are laser-focused on showcasing what the Mean Green are all about: a commitment to caring and the resilience to see it through.
UNT kindled Natalie Merrell's heart for service in her current reign as Miss Denton County by connecting her to animal rights activist and environmentalist Jane Goodall.
"I met Jane Goodall when she came to UNT as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series in 2018, and she inspired me to take the next step and start doing more to help change the world," says Merrell, a junior vocal performance major who chose UNT for the prestigious music program and supportive environment. "I did a ton of research and finally decided the Miss America Organization was the best way for me to reach more people and make a more significant difference."
Each contestant is allowed to champion a social issue during her year of service, in addition to regular titleholder duties such as appearances at schools, community events and fundraisers. Merrell chose the Goodall Institute's "Roots and Shoots: Cultivating Compassionate Leaders for our Environment" as her social impact initiative.
As part of Roots and Shoots, Merrell helped organize UNT's first "eco-social" in the community garden, where environmentally conscious students and faculty met and enjoyed a zero-waste picnic to talk about streamlining environmental change on campus. Merrell spoke at a Denton Sustainable Schools teacher training meeting over the summer about incorporating Roots and Shoots programs into classrooms and after-school programs.
Merrell will retain her title of Miss Denton County until March 2020. She plans to pursue more titles in the hopes of once again competing for the Miss Texas title -- and spreading her environmental message.
"Environmental awareness within a community fosters compassion for all living things, which leads to sustainable development, conservation of irreplaceable natural resources and the longevity of our society," Merrell says. "Forging a relationship with the environment has deepened my love for life and the world around me."
The current Ms. Wheelchair Texas, Lauren Taylor, chose UNT because of its reputation for encouraging and championing individuality.
"So many of my older friends who have disabilities all went here," says Taylor, a graduate student in UNT's nationally renowned rehabilitation studies program. "It felt like joining a legacy to come here. I chose UNT because it's where my 'wheel family' has gone to school over the years, and I knew there was an atmosphere of acceptance."
In her role as Ms. Wheelchair Texas, Taylor knew it was time to pay that spirit forward. The Lewisville native was born with merosin-deficient congenital muscular dystrophy, a neuromuscular disease. The condition makes Taylor's muscles weak and prevents them from strengthening. A motorized wheelchair and her service dog, Buchanan, help her get around.
The beginning of Taylor's advocacy journey began at age 7 when she became a Good Will Ambassador for the Muscular Dystrophy Association to educate others about the challenges of living with muscular dystrophy. She's continued speaking for this cause, using it for her platform as Ms. Wheelchair Texas to spread a message of hope -- and, of course, acceptance.
"I advocate for universal design for inclusion," says Taylor, who notes that universal design is about making everything usable for everyone, rather than separately accessible. "Essentially, what I hope to achieve is to educate people on its importance for the betterment of our community, those with disabilities included."
She has worked with UNT on universal design for classrooms, including the development of a specialized permanent desk for fixed-seating classrooms for anyone who uses a wheelchair, scooter or is otherwise unable to sit at the seating stations provided.
"This project has been my baby for the past year or two," she says, "and I am so excited for it."
Like Taylor, Chandler Foreman -- the reigning Miss Texas -- decided UNT was the right place for her due to its focus on individuality and diversity.
"What separates you from others is what makes you you, and it's those qualities that make you unique," says Foreman, a senior majoring in pre-converged broadcast media. "It's important to take time to acknowledge the things that make you different and then dedicate yourself to developing those things."
As Miss Texas, Foreman has focused on connecting with and inspiring others by candidly sharing her own insecurities and differences. During her speech at the Miss Texas competition, she described how as a child she never felt she was "enough" because of the "gap in my teeth, my poofy hair, and even the color of my skin."
"My purpose is to uplift and inspire the audiences I address throughout the year," she says. "I plan to use my gift of speaking to and influencing others to send a message of determination and strength."
Foreman's personal project -- a full-time job on its own, and the one she's tackling as Miss Texas -- is known as "The Leader Within," part of the Texas Cares for Children school program. She is visiting about 250 schools for the program, which focuses on areas such as character education, setting and achieving goals, making healthy choices, and understanding and respecting differences. Foreman also continues to spread the message of the organization she co-founded, Kween to Queen, which is dedicated to building a new generation of teenage girls who are committed to becoming their best selves.
Foreman, in her win as Miss Texas, personifies that vision.
"I embraced my uniqueness and emerged in confidence," she told the crowd during the state competition, "and now I empower kids to do the same."
Foreman will represent Texas in the Miss America competition, scheduled to air live on NBC Dec. 19.