Rutgers University Social Work Student Cierra Kaler-Jones, Miss New Jersey 2014
[Editor's Note: Cierra Kaler-Jones is THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER magazine's Student Role Model for Fall 2014. The current Miss Jersey, she is competing for the title of Miss America. Members of the public can vote for America's Choice here. The pageant will air live on ABC on Sunday, September 14, 2014.]
by Barbara Trainin Blank
Bubbly, energetic, driven. These words describe Cierra Kaler-Jones, a bachelor of social work student who not only is competing for the Miss America title, but aims to someday become the U.S. Secretary of Education.
A schedule that normally could be described as hectic has become intense. In addition to her social work major at Rutgers University, where she has been earning a higher-than-3.9 GPA, the 21-year-old has a triple minor: women’s and gender studies, critical and comparative race and ethnic studies, and criminology.
She spent part of the summer in India in a fellowship program and is now on the road a great deal of time as Miss New Jersey, representing her birth and home state. Kaler-Jones will be away for two weeks in September with the 53 other Miss America contestants, for which she needed special permission to miss school.
On top of that, she is part of a Rutgers University dance team, which performs at football and basketball games. A lover of Broadway musicals, she was awed by the first performance she saw of the American Ballet Theatre.
Kaler-Jones thanks her parents—actually, her mother and the stepfather she considers her father—for giving her the confidence to achieve what she has. Kaler-Jones is the first person in her family to attend college, and her 17-year-old brother is following suit. “It’s a big deal for my family,” she says.
A lemon-makes-lemonade person, Kaler-Jones found a positive aspect of appearing in court in an attempt to have her biological father fulfill an obligation to pay for her education. “It shaped my desire to be an advocate,” she said. “I was taken aback by the number of minority kids in the criminal justice system and the inequalities.”
Not surprisingly, Kaler-Jones has always been a bookworm. “My parents took me to the bookstore every week,” she says with a laugh.
She always has sought additional ways to learn and teach. Kaler-Jones earned a Certificate in Women’s Leadership from the Institute for Women’s Leadership; participated in the two-semester Human Rights Living-Learning Community, designed for students to research human rights policies, nongovernmental organizations, and social justice movements around the world; and co-taught a course for the Barbara Voorhees Mentor Program at Douglass Residential College.
The BSW candidate was a U.S. Operations intern last summer for She’s the First, an organization that sponsors girls’ education in low-income countries to give them the chance to become the first in their families to graduate from secondary school. Using technology and social media, She’s the First is committed to connecting sponsors and scholars around the world in innovative, mutually beneficial ways to foster mentorship, philanthropy, equality, and leadership. Kaler-Jones developed the curriculum for She’s the First’s partnership with The Young Women’s Leadership Schools of New York’s Summer Camp.
“She’s the First is so proud of Cierra,” says the president and founder, Tammy Tibbetts. “She was named our 2014 Campus Leader of the Year, an honor given at our Leadership Summit each year (in August in New York City).”
What Tibbetts admires about Kaler-Jones is “how she inspires others around her to be part of her team, to take action that will not only create joy in her own community, but also create opportunities for girls around the world. When Cierra signs up to do something, she does it. She is one of the most authentic, persistent, and passionate young women I’ve ever met.”
In addition to the social work degree she’s completing, Kaler-Jones hopes to obtain a master’s degree in education policy and then go to law school. In 2013, she was a summer intern in the Criminal Justice Division of the Office of the Attorney General of New Jersey.
The multifaceted young woman also has been an advocate for the arts. In fact, her platform for the Miss Jersey and Miss America pageants is “Empowering Today’s Youth Through Arts Education.” When arts programs were cut for lack of funding in her high school, she went to board of education meetings to voice her opinion about the benefits of such programs.
“The arts taught me self-confidence and give a person cultural and personal capital,” she told the officials. “For the first time, I felt my voice was important, that people really listened. That was a huge turning point for me.” Eventually, the arts programs were reinstated. Being Miss Jersey gives Kaler-Jones the opportunity to continue such advocacy.
Once she makes a decision, Kaler-Jones moves fast. She told her mother a week before the Miss Atlantic County Pageant that she was entering, and then scrambled successfully to get together the different pieces she needed. Four years later, she was named Miss New Jersey and caught the bug.“The position gives you the power to spread a message,” she said. “I’ve also found my very best friends in the competition.”
Sharing New Jersey roots, Tibbetts says she is very proud that the young woman is representing the state and “our generation.” “I’d be thrilled if Cierra wins Miss America,” Tibbetts continues. “But regardless, she is a true global citizen, and that’s the best anyone can really ever be.”
Many of her friends were “perplexed” that as a self-described feminist, Kaler-Jones was drawn to beauty contests. She herself saw a contradiction at first. But Kaler-Jones, who lives close to Atlantic City, was impressed by an earlier Miss New Jersey who visited her school and spoke of being a role model “Feminism is also about empowering women to feel comfortable in our own skin,” she said.
Even the swimsuit competition—now renamed “Lifestyle and Fitness”—is a positive for Kaler-Jones, who grew up “very overweight” and not comfortable in her skin. “Since then, I’ve learned about fitness and wellness and have taught my family. If you can go onstage in a swimsuit, you can do anything.”
Kaler-Jones spends non-competition time in a swimsuit, as well. As much as she loves to read, do research, and public speaking, she also enjoys the beaches of her native state. She enjoys journaling and blogging and once played piano, saxophone, and a self-taught guitar.
The one thing Kaler-Jones wishes she had more time for is talking to friends. “I’m very much a people person,” she says.
Freelance writer Barbara Trainin Blank, formerly of Harrisburg, PA, now lives in the greater Washington, DC, area.