Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Sarah Sun '23 won the Miss Finger Lakes Scholarship Organization in January, a preliminary event to the Miss New York State and Miss America pageants. Sun has been competing in pageant scholarship programs since high school, and she has continued these competitions as a Cornell student.

March 10, 2020

‘Speak Your Truth and Take Up Space’: Cornell First-Year on Winning Miss Finger Lakes and Beyond

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On campus, Sarah Sun ’23 sits on the Student Assembly as a freshman representative and is working toward her applied economics and management major. But off campus, she trades her backpack for a sash to compete in scholarship-oriented pageants.

Hailing from Cedar City, Utah, one of Sun’s first pageant memories — aside from seeing her older sister compete — was watching an Asian-American contestant and former Miss California, Crystal Lee, place first-runner up to Nina Davuluri in Miss America 2014.

“It was such a powerful moment,” Sun told The Sun. “That was one of the first times in my life when I felt like this country valued people who looked like me. After talking to other girls in my community who felt similarly, I knew that it was time that I was that person for them.”

Sun started competing in pageants in high school and decided to continue on the runway once she arrived in Ithaca.

Before competing at Miss Finger Lakes, the Miss Distinguished Women organization crowned Sun with another scholarship in January 2019.

“It was because of this program that I was able to pay for my entire first year of college,” Sun said from her Just About Music North Campus dorm. “It really is an outlet that encourages women to be their best self and constantly strive for self-improvement.”

Because Sun’s values aligned closely with the Miss Finger Lakes program, preparing for the pageant mostly required her to go about daily life.

The competition is broken into four portions: interview, talent, onstage question and social impact pitch — which allowed Sun to sharpen skills she already had in her toolbelt. Performing a piano piece for her talent event incentivized her to continue practicing. The onstage question only helped her become a stronger speaker and communicator.

After she was named Miss Distinguished Woman of Utah, Sun was spoke to elementary school-aged children at a church about the program’s “Be Your Best Self” platform.

“It seems kind of frivolous, but when you’re a 10-year-old girl and you see somebody with a crown on their head, you listen to them,” Sun said about her time holding this title. “Being in this program has really made me aware and inspired me to live in a way that I would be proud of rewatching on my deathbed.”

With her newest crown, Sun is focusing on making her social impact pitch, “This Land is Our Land: The Case for Diversity and Inclusion,” into a more marketable and official platform to compete with as she prepares for the state-level competition, which will take place in late May. 

But more than anything, Sun doesn’t want to focus exclusively on her accomplishments. Instead, she wants to break down stereotypes and draw attention to advocacy that is more important than herself — encouraging others to realize they are “equally worthy as anybody..”

“If I have one message, it’s this quote: ‘Sometimes, the most powerful form of activism is existing, taking up space, speaking your mind and being comfortable with who you are,’” Sun said. “That’s really what I want to put out into the world.”

Correction, June 28, 6:14 p.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the organization that awarded Sun a scholarship. It was the Distinguished Young Women organization, not Miss Finger Lakes. The article also inaccurately described Sun speaking to government officials and at elementary schools after she won the Distinguished Young Women’s scholarship. Sun spoke to elementary school-aged children at a church, not to government officials or elementary schools. The article has since been updated to reflect these changes.