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There she is: Miss America, a nuclear engineer

December 8, 2023
By Sheila Evans

Before her reign as Miss America was to come to an end, a stop in Boca Grande was essential for Grace Stanke. With the help of Diane Cook – Grace’s great-aunt, a Boca Grande resident and a member of the Boca Grande Woman’s Club – that highlight of her year was fulfilled this week.

Grace was the guest speaker at the Woman’s Club meeting on Monday, Dec. 4. She has just about a month left in her time as Miss America, so it worked out perfectly. Grace shared some of her excitement of the past year, and then had to rush off to catch a flight to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for another presentation.

“She wowed the Woman’s Club with her great sense of humor and history on why she chose nuclear engineering as her career,” said great-aunt Diane, who also bragged (rightfully) that Grace has just been included in Forbes magazine’s “30 under 30” for “powering a more sustainable future.”

Grace truly embodies the modern ideals of the Miss America program. In prior generations, it was thought of as merely a beauty contest. Today the program emphasizes the ideal of the accomplished woman. 

Grace Stanke is certainly beautiful and perfectly styled, but she is also extremely smart and dedicated to her own education, as well as educating others, particularly on the benefits of nuclear energy. 

This Miss America is soon to graduate from the University of Wisconsin as a nuclear engineer. She already has several years of experience working in the nuclear energy field and advocating for the use of this type of energy, touting its economic, power and environmental benefits. 

While she knows the serious side of the science, Grace is equally comfortable joking and telling stories about how she got involved in the field of nuclear energy.

“I’m a storyteller,” she admitted. “I like telling stories and connecting with people through the interactions I’ve had. So I like to tell the story of how I got into nuclear science, which actually has a lot to do with my dad.”

“I did it for spite,” Grace said. “My dad told me not to go into it as a 16-year-old teenage girl. And every 16-year-old teenage girl says, ‘Watch me,’ and goes and does it. So that’s what started it all.”

Being an independent teenager may have gotten her started on this path, but what really grabbed her, kept her engaged and stirred her passion was what she learned in college. 

“The first semester I learned that nuclear science is all around us,” she said. “It’s in bananas; it’s in smoke detectors; in granite countertops; avocados. All those things are naturally radioactive. And in my mind it was, well why am I afraid of radiation? Why am I worried about this when it’s all around us?”

“And then, as I continued to learn about the different applications of nuclear science,” she said, “you know, on the medicine side of things … my dad’s a two-time cancer survivor – the same man who told me not to go into this field is alive because of nuclear medicine! On the energy side, nuclear energy produces 20 percent of America’s electricity. It’s reliable and it’s zero carbon, which is one thing that politicians can agree on, on both sides of the aisle, and it’s wonderful. So, I’ve become an advocate for nuclear science – to talk about what it is and talk about what it can do for our society, how it already exists and how, when we permit it to grow, then it will grow, and it will only help us.” 

Such commitment and intensity are traits the Miss America judges saw in Grace that made them choose her as their national representative. The same sort of enthusiasm was evident in the talent aspect of the selection process for Miss America.

Grace plays classical violin and, in fact, won the talent competition at this year’s pageant. It was the desire to improve her violin performance that pushed her to become involved in the Miss America program initially. That was several years ago, when she was just a kid of 16 (she’s now 21).

“I have been playing violin now for 13 years,” she said. “And when I was about 12 or 13 years old, I was not very good at performing. I wasn’t good at playing in front of people, so I found the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen organization, which includes a challenge as a required portion of the competition. So I competed, and I ended up really enjoying it. I competed as a teen for two years, and won ‘state’ the second year.”

When she won the local title, she went on to the state-level competition, where she did not do so well. Still, she obtained a scholarship and a pat on the back. 

“And then, when I got to college, I grew up and I had a lot of life changes, and I realized college is very expensive,” she recalled. “I knew Miss America had a scholarship opportunity, so I came back after I turned 18 and could compete in the ‘Miss’ division.” The rest is history.

Again, her violin was an important part of her competitive edge. She noted that her violin helped her emotionally as she was growing up. It was “a healthy way of dealing with the not-so-fun emotions” of adolescence, she said. “I love playing my violin. I love performing.” Right now,  however, she is more focused on the business of nuclear science. The violin will always be a hobby, but it is in the background. 

Her year as Miss America has been a whirlwind of activity for Grace. She recalled skydiving with the Army over Miami, lobster fishing in Maine, going to Paris, traveling some 210,000 miles in the past 11-1/2 months, visiting 22 states and six different countries. Along the way she has visited schools and power plants, and she’s shared her life with thousands of people. She has been photographed and interviewed multiple times, and she has loved almost all of it. Still, she is looking forward to stepping out of the national spotlight.

“I’m 21 years old. I have a lot of learning left to do. I have a lot of growing left to do. And I’ve had a lot of experiences that have completely changed my perspective and my outlook on life overall,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience. I’m incredibly thankful for this.”

Her role as Miss America has been her paid position for the past year. That ends January 14. In March she begins her new job with Constellation Energy, a utility company and spinoff of Excelon, the nation’s largest owner of nuclear plants.

She will be moving from Wausau, Wisc. to Kennett Square, Pa., where she will be working as a core design engineer. “I’ll be helping to plan out and design reactor cores at different nuclear power plants across the country. And then, I’ll also still continue the advocacy. That is worked into the job description, so I’m really excited to have that opportunity to keep educating people.”

Grace worked for Constellation as a co-op student, helping design processes that were implemented in 12 different nuclear power plants, even as an 18-year-old. 

“It’s been really awesome,” she said. “I worked at two different research labs. It’s an incredible industry that has a lot to offer.”

She won’t mind getting back to a somewhat more stable life. “It will be slightly less sparkly, but I’m excited,” she acknowledged. She is looking forward to getting an apartment, getting a dog and cooking her own meals.

Oh, yes, and Grace is a competitive water skier, so she hopes to get back into that as well, when the weather permits. “And making some time for myself,” she said, a little wistfully. 

Although she will have no future formal responsibilities regarding the Miss America program, Grace expects to continue to help out where she can with both the teen program in her hometown and the “Miss” program at the state level in Wisconsin. 

For her, the best part of being Miss America has been interacting with so many interesting people.

“I love connecting with them. Because, to me, I’m still just a girl from small-town Wisconsin. But Miss America’s a 102-year-old household-recognized name. And for a lot of people, that’s a really incredible experience, so taking the time to have conversations, to connect with people, to just listen to them, is such an awesome, awesome experience for me. That’s my favorite part, hands down! It’s pretty exciting, it really is. I’m honored; I’m honored.”

The Woman’s Club was happy to be among those who have honored Grace. This was Grace’s second time visiting to see her great-aunt.

“It’s beautiful here. I love it,” she said, adding that if she had more time, she would love to just sit outside and fall asleep listening to the waves.

Once her life calms down, she may make that wish a reality.