A Unique Mission Field: 50 Years of Miss UM

Almost everyone has seen “the face” – the face of outright surprise when a young woman hears her name called and her head is donned with the coveted crown. There is no amount of feigned shock or surprise that can accurately depict the emotion of that moment.

It is, essentially, as “surreal” as it gets, reflects Miss UM 2010 Sarah Becky Spain ’11.

“It was like it wasn’t happening at all,” says Spain. “Then it did and I had to walk around the stage and try to smile through the uncontrollable tears!”

Pageants combine the essential blend of beauty, intelligence, fashion, and fitness in an often nerve-wracking display of courage in front of a live audience. The contestants must impress in all facets to win the crown. Months of hard work come down to one moment.

For any woman that has worn the crown of Miss UM, the hard work has resulted in far more than a sparkly headpiece – it changed a life.

Celebrating 50 Years
The first Miss UM pageant was called Miss Mobile College and was held soon after the school admitted its first class in 1963. Fifty years later, the pageant has grown into a preliminary for the Miss Alabama pageant – en route to Miss America. This allows Miss UM to provide scholarship money as well as other awards and incentives for winners. Aside from competing for the crown, women compete for honors in other categories including talent, swimsuit, Miss Congeniality, and the People’s Choice award.

This year, the pageant included a live band and featured former Miss Mobile College 1990 Julie Hatcher Ralph ‘92 as an emcee.

Marilyn Foley has been involved with Miss UM since 1998, providing mentorship and guidance to each of the girls participating.

“I am always extremely impressed by the commitment these young women make to this endeavor,” says Foley. “It requires time, probably some financial resources, an emotional investment and a whole lot of nerve!” This commitment entails many nights of hard work, exercise and honing talent – with only one young woman walking away with the crown.

Given American culture’s obsession with beauty and sex appeal, it would be easy to write off the pageant as “just another beauty contest.” But current Miss UM Director Abby Pressley ‘14, sees it differently.

“It is not about being the most beautiful, or the skinniest, or the fittest,” she says. “It is about learning to be confident in who you are as a woman and, for us here at the University of Mobile, it is being confident in who we are in Christ.”

Pressley believes the commitment to compete is beneficial for each participant, no matter who wins.

“It gives these girls the opportunity to meet people they probably never would have had contact with, step outside of their comfort zone, exude confidence, and compete for scholarship money,” she says.

Miss UM 2000 Christen Kelly Bumstead ‘01 competed for two years, and believes the risk and commitment of the pageant pushed her in ways other experiences had not.

“It challenged me to sharpen my interview skills, work harder on building my platform and get in better shape,” says Bumstead.

In her years of seeing countless Miss UM contestants walk across the stage, Foley considers beauty to be a vague term, choosing instead to focus on the maturity and inner character that makes each girl special.

“Miss UM develops a sense of style and taste that best enhances her appearance and responsibilities,” says Foley.

In addition to character building, the pageant seeks to instill a service oriented approach to leadership.

Each Miss UM contestant chooses a platform, or cause, that they will support by fundraising, promotion and public speaking. This gives contestants the opportunity to use their influence and role as ambassador for UMobile for greater good in the community.

Spain’s platform, “Honoring Veterans,” and partnership with the Honor Flight Network took her to Washington, D.C. as a tour guide for three World War II veterans. These men experienced the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the WWII memorial– both life-changing experiences for the men and Spain.

“Having the opportunity to honor members of our military, both past and present, was one of the most precious things that Miss UM afforded me,” says Spain.

Recently crowned Miss UM Emily Danforth will spend her year of service raising money and awareness for the National Scoliosis Foundation. Danforth was diagnosed with scoliosis in elementary school and underwent spinal fusion surgery in 2008 at the age of 15.

“With the reliance on the surgeons and doctors to make my back straight and my reliance on God to make my paths straight, I had both a successful surgery and recovery,” says Danforth.

Each Miss UM has used their platform to not only make an immediate impact in their community, but also leave a lasting legacy.

Bumstead always had a special place in her heart for senior citizens. Since the age of 13, she had volunteered in nursing homes. When she began competing for Miss UM, she chose to use this love for
senior citizens as her platform, titled “Amazing Grays.” It was through this platform that she promoted volunteerism in nursing homes and senior centers, while also gaining a career as marketing director and admission coordinator at a local nursing home.

“I truly believe that the crown, itself, is merely a dust collector, but what you do with it is what matters,” says Bumstead. “The title of Miss UM not only allowed me to speak to numerous groups of people about my passion for the elderly, but it opened up doors to share Jesus with audiences I may have never known otherwise.” Pressley’s involvement as pageant director gave her a newfound respect for the women that compete, as well as UMobile’s approach.

“The Miss UM pageant gives a unique mission field to one girl as she journeys to Miss Alabama,” says Pressley. “It takes Isaiah 6:8 to a very different place than most would think.”

Regardless of who walks away with the crown, contestants are reminded that lasting memories are grounded in the relationships they developed and effort they gave.

“I want EVERY girl to be a winner, whether they continue on to Miss Alabama or not,” says Foley. “Hopefully, the girls finish the experience with new friends, closer relationships, knowing themselves better, and extending themselves beyond what they knew they could accomplish.”

About the Author

Trey Taulbee


Trey received his Bachelor of Science in Communication from UMobile and his Master of Arts in New Media Journalism from Full Sail University. He has worked in enrollment services, campus life, and now as a member of the marketing department at UMobile. Additionally, Trey co-owns a photography business with his wife, Michelle, specializing in wedding and portrait photography. When Trey isn’t holding a camera or perusing the office for snacks, he is busy exploring the eastern shore of Alabama (camera in hand) with his wife, Michelle, son, Jack and dogs Cammie & Malone.