her crowning was met with negative comments because of her skin color
HAMPTON — Hampton University crowned its first non-black Miss HU Friday, leading to a division on campus that prompted her to write Obama.
Nikole Churchill, 22, competed against nine black students in the 15th annual Miss HU scholarship pageant. The senior nursing major attends the Virginia Beach campus and is the competition's first non-black winner, according to executive pageant director Shelia J. Maye.
Churchill, who is from Hawaii, wrote Obama on Sunday to tell him that her crowning was met with negative comments because of her skin color. She invited him to visit HU and speak about racial tolerance.
"I am hoping that perhaps you would be able to make an appearance to my campus, Hampton University, so that my fellow Hamptonians can stop focusing so much on the color of my skin and doubting my abilities to represent," she wrote, "but rather be proud of the changes our nation is making toward accepting diversity."
In a local television report, she said her father is from Guam and her mother is Italian.
Her letter was posted Sunday on Congress.org. Churchill did not have HU's permission to comment Monday, said pageant co-director Mavis Baah.
This year's pageant included evening gown, swimsuit and talent competitions. Churchill won a $1,500 scholarship, will serve as homecoming queen Oct. 24 and continues on to the 2010 Miss Virginia pageant.
Maye said the Miss HU pageant grew out of the former homecoming queen competition, in which students voted for the winner. Now, the pageant winner is selected by judges and automatically serves as the university's homecoming queen.
This year's pageant was judged by five people, including two certified by the Miss Virginia competition, which leads to the Miss America pageant. The other judges were Joan Gentry, an HU counselor for freshman studies; Lorraine Bell, an HU music professor; and Henry Mills, a senior vice president at Old Point National Bank.
Journalism sophomore Juan Diasgranados said the Hampton campus is split on Churchill's crowning, with everyone from students to faculty and professors weighing in. Some are saying her win is great and embodies HU's spirit of diversity, he said, while others complain that she's not black and doesn't attend the main campus.
"They're saying that people don't know who she is, people don't even see her, so how can she represent us if she's not even from the main campus?"
The main campus has about 5,700 students while the university's Virginia Beach campus has about 90 students.
Diasgranados said a noticeable number of students walked out of the pageant Friday night when Churchill was crowned, but that he was among the majority who stood and applauded. About 900 people attended the pageant in Ogden Hall on campus, Maye said.
Churchill was one of about 35 students who applied to compete in the pageant during the spring semester, and one of 10 selected to compete after turning in applications.
Maye said Churchill's platform was about the need to mentor girls ages 11-14 on topics including self-esteem, body image, teenage pregnancies and nutrition.
Like the other contestants, Maye said Churchill answered a set of questions about her cause and was judged for her ability to be articulate and think on her feet.
Maye said the crowning of a non-black student is a great milestone for HU and that she's shocked by the amount of attention it's garnered.
"We have all kinds of people on our campus, we are not in a cocoon," she said. "As far as I'm concerned we need to get her ready to serve HU and to move on and represent us at Miss Virginia."
News of Churchill's win and her letter to Obama jammed the Internet, attracting notice of HU alumni after the story aired on WVEC-TV 13 and circulated on social networking sites.
Churchill told the news station at Saturday's Hampton versus Howard University football game that her mother is 100 percent Italian and her father is from Guam. In her letter to the president, she called herself Hawaiian.
Arthur A. Turner Jr., a 1982 graduate who lives in Prince George's County, Md., received an e-mail about her win and said he disagrees with those complaining that Churchill isn't black and doesn't attend the main campus.
"She represents the entirety of the university, the alumni, the faculty, the staff, the students," Turner said. "All of that is on her shoulders, including the Virginia Beach and main campus. I am confident she will do an extremely good job of representing us."
Turner added that the alumni of his era that he's spoken with fully support Churchill and the change she brought to HU's tradition.
"We now have to move forward in our thinking because the world is different, America is different, and we have all been fighting for change," he said. "And as we continue that fight, we must be accepting of the things that we fight for."
Churchill is not the first non-black student to be crowned at a historically black college. In April, Kentucky State University student Elisabeth Martin won the 80th homecoming queen election, making her the first white student to win.
She, too, experienced some negativity on campus and gossip online, she said in an interview with The ( Frankfort, Ky.) State-Journal. Some people told her that she can't relate to the experience of black women, but Martin said that as a woman, she knows what women go through.
"I may not have the background for all of that, but I'm more than willing to learn," Martin told The State-Journal. "I don't have all the answers, but I'm more than willing to listen, to hear the stories. I want to be someone who cares."
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