For her winning answer at Sunday night's Miss Teen USA pageant, Miss Missouri Sophia Dominguez-Heithoff offered a broad message of inclusivity.
"It's important to remember that as Miss Teen USA, you are a role model," Dominguez-Heithoff, 17, said during the question-and-answer session. "I would love to be the Miss Teen USA that could accept everyone, especially for their differences."
Days after winning the crown, Dominguez-Heithoff spoke to USA TODAY about her history of advocacy work and her big dreams ahead. As a soon-to-be freshman at the University of Kansas, she's dedicating the pageant's $10,000 scholarship and $5,000 cash prize to her studies, majoring in ethics and political science. She hopes to eventually attend law school.
"I would love to represent minorities in America, and that means not only people of other ethnicities but also women," she said. "I’ve advocated for people with developmental disabilities multiple times in the Missouri state legislature and I think one of the most daunting things I saw was the lack of female representation. Women make up over 50% of the US population and yet we lack representation in our government across the nation and I think that’s a big issue we have."
Dominguez-Heithoff is particularly motivated by a certain famous name.
"I've been inspired by multiple people in my life, including Amal Clooney," she said. "She’s really inspired me to want to maybe get into pursuing law in a way that can help people domestically and around the world."
"My aunt Joanne is in her 40s...my mother is actually her legal guardian, so I essentially grew up with her as a sister," she said. "I’ve seen her throughout the many stages in her life, and obviously when someone ages with a developmental disability, it is very difficult and I’ve seen the challenges she’s had, even though she has a very supportive family. And I realized at a very young age that not everyone can have the same opportunity my aunt has had."
Dominguez-Heithoff urged all Americans, and particularly her teenage peers, to be more mindful of their treatment of people with disabilities.
"My message is definitely (one) of respect and inclusion, not just of tolerance," she said. "Tolerance is a great first step, but once we get there, we need to create a society that doesn’t just tolerate those with developmental disabilities, but includes them in everyday activities."
Dominguez-Heithoff is still too young to vote even though she's been politically active for years.
Her message for other young advocates who can't legally cast a ballot? Don't let your age stop you from participating in the political process. "I think the biggest thing I learned is if you go into a meeting with confidence, and if you go into a conversation having done your research, people will take you seriously," she said. "Being a 16-year-old and not even being able to vote for those who represent me yet, but still having a role in civics, is one of the best things the American political process can give."
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