A 21-year-old Laupahoehoe woman captured the title of Miss Collegiate America last weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas.
“I still can’t believe it,” said Ronelle Valera, a 2017 graduate of Kamehameha Schools in Keaau.
Her journey to the title started in 2017 when she was a senior in high school. She ran for the title Miss Hawaii Collegiate.
“I was the youngest one; I just went for it and I got first runner-up,” she recalled. “I felt really defeated after that because I got a lot of harsh critiques physically, so I ended up taking a break. I graduated high school and came to school in Portland.”
While attending Concordia University last year, she decided to get back into pageant competition and entered the Miss Hawaii Collegiate pageant.
“I was kind of bored with my life; I needed to spice it up,” she said. “I had three leadership positions at my university but that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to come back to pageants.”
Valera said she had grown a lot since her last competition.
“My resume grew, I grew. I was a totally new Ronelle. I ended up coming home to run and I won, which was totally unexpected because I had taken such a long break,” she said.
But as she prepared to return to college, she learned her school had declared bankruptcy and shut down.
In order to compete at the national level, contestants needed to be enrolled in school, so the search for a university landed her at Warner Pacific University where she will graduate this coming May with a major in social work.
The national pageant was supposed to take place in June, but got postponed because of COVID-19.
“Then it happened this past weekend and was totally unexpected that I even placed top 16, and then top five. Then I got best in interview and then I won the whole thing!” she said, still in disbelief. “There was not a second that I thought I could win this. I’m from Laupahoehoe!”
The pageant was a week filled with a lot of fun activities and excursions. Usually, contestants would get to bond with the other girls, but because of COVID they had to social distance. The competition itself was three days long. Thursday consisted of interviews, Friday was the preliminary competition where every one competed and on Saturday they announced the top 16 and only the top 16 competed.
Valera said the interview, which she placed first, was biography based.
“The judges had my bio since June, so they looked up my social media. On one of my Instagram posts on Father’s Day I wished my dad a happy Father’s Day. It’s just he and I so I jokingly wrote, ‘hey I’m looking for a mom,’” she said. “They brought it up in the interview. They said so it said on your post you were looking for a mom. What are you looking for? I jokingly said, ‘well are any of you available?’ One of the judges raised her hand and we were all laughing. I’m pretty sure that’s why I won the interview. I was just having fun.”
Valera’s father, Roy has raised Ronelle as a single parent since she was 5.
“I am just so proud of her,” said the elder Valera who accompanied her to the finals. “Just to see her accomplish this is amazing. She put her heart and soul in it.”
The pageant’s platform is BRAVE, which is an anti-bullying campaign. At the finals, she needed to answer the on-stage question: “What does BRAVE mean to you and what have you done to promote it?”
Even though she knew the question beforehand, she did not have a prepared answer since she never dreamed she would make it that far.
“I remember the night before my interview my dad said, ‘just have fun.’ Usually, when we prepare for pageants, there is a lot of planning and forethought. I decided I was going into it just to have fun,” she said. “It worked out in my favor. I just spoke from my heart and it worked out really good.”
In her answer, Valera said that coming from an island in the middle of the ocean she needed to get creative in spreading the platform in the middle of a pandemic.
“So what did I do? I took to social media. I wanted to know that my voice coming all the way from the middle of the ocean was being heard,” she said, adding she also created a website named Kahanus Korner.
She talked about being bullied herself and how she would spread the message of respect for yourself and others.
“Not for a second did I think I was going to win. I went against 52 amazing girls,” she said. “I thought there is no way that I’m winning. So now that I actually won, I’m going to take it day by day. This is going to be full jammed pack with opportunities. I’ll take whatever comes, but if being Miss Collegiate America is my peak, I’m perfectly fine with that.”
She said the title is like a full-time job. She has about four or five trips planned to make appearances, meet with sponsors and photo shoots and also has a requirement of at least five appearances and community service events to do every month. All of this while still going to school and having a full-time internship.
After graduation she hopes to start her master’s degree, looking at the University of Hawaii at Manoa for postgraduate studies.
“I would love to come home because I do plan on coming home to work. But wherever I get in and is the cheapest is where I’m going,” she said.
As Miss Collegiate America 2020 Valera will be awarded a brand new JL Jeep Wrangler Sport and $100,000 in scholarships, trips, wardrobe, travel, service, and additional prizes.