links for 2006-12-29

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Beauty and Brains Pageant – Real or Scam?

Last night I stumbled upon the website of the Beauty and Brains Pageant, an international pageant for all women aged 17 and above, regardless of citizenship, residence, marital status, or place of study. From its website:

Sponsored by the Institute for Education, Research, and Scholarships (IFERS), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit public charity organization, the Beauty and Brains Pageant emphasizes personal achievement and community service.

Participants are gauged on four aspects: the interview, business attire, evening gown, and community service (no swimsuits). The winner (Miss Beauty and Brains?) would earn a $10,000 scholarship, and a 6-week casting workshop. (Runners-up get scholarship money too.)

Now I’m the antithesis of a beauty pageant contestant. The closest I am to “modelly” is having had glamour photos taken (once as a birthday present, once as a lucky draw prize) and having fun dressing up in costume. I do not have beauty-queen looks, I find fashion and beauty (in the material sense) boring, I do not aspire to be a model – indeed, the only thing “beauty queen”-like about me is my name. However, this pageant seemed rather intriguing. It seemed to be focused more on personal development than on looks. Even their application form (PDF file) is surprisingly decent: most of the questions are based on community work, career plans, and role models, and there are no questions about looks – nothing about height, weight, vital statistics, colours, or anything of the sort.

Besides, it’s something I actually qualify for. I have been hunting high and low for scholarships for myself, but could not find anything I qualified for. I was either in the wrong course, the wrong country, of the wrong nationality, or just didn’t fit some other random requirement. The only one I’ve applied to so far is the Dean’s Merit Scholarship offered by my faculty, and that’s technically for a future student coming into second year – not a current student like myself that’s already spent a semester. Here, they don’t care where I live, where I study, whether I’m single or married (I wonder if they’ll care that I have a boyfriend?), or what I’m studying. I could even have children and I’d still qualify.

As un-pageanty as I am, I considered applying anyway, just as a lark. I remembered one of the contestants of MTV’s Made, a self-described tomboy who wanted to be a pageant contestant. She was struggling through the whole pageant process (which she described and showed as rather fake), and while she ultimately didn’t win, she had more personality than all the other contestants put together – and even became Homecoming Queen (or Prom Queen) at her school! At least, if nothing else, it would make a good laugh. However, I couldn’t seem to figure out if IFERS or the pageant itself were legitimate. Among some concerns:

  • Googling for IFERS or the pageant only brings up itself, PR websites, or Craigslist postings. There are few third-party references, and none of them were reputable sources such as newspapers or other media sources.

  • While IFERS claimed to have awarded scholarships in connection with groups like the American Film Institute, I could not find independent verification.

  • The founder of IFERS, Newton Lee, does seem to exist – he is in charge of the Hollywood Lab at the National University of Singapore. However, he seems to be quite the self-linker – he wrote his own Wikipedia entry and all references to the pageant on Wikipedia (where I first heard about it) were added by him.

  • There isn’t much information available about the other organizers. Some are Google-able, but there’s nothing concrete to link them to this pageant other than the pageant website.

  • While they do have a Network for Good profile, they’re not on Charity Navigator or the IRS Publication 78 Search. (Then again, Up With People is in the same situation, and I know for sure they’re legit. So who knows.)

  • It’s not stated clearly what the US$300 entry fee (paid once you are selected) covers – indeed, there isn’t much information about costs for travel and accommodation. At least they do offer to refund the money if you can’t come.

  • The selection process is similarly vague. How do they pick people for the first pre-pageant round? What are they looking for overall – looks? Intelligence? Community spirit? If looks don’t really matter, then why have a pageant?

  • They can’t even get the date consistent – IFERS has it listed as end-June; B&B says it’s end-July.

In the absence of independent third-party verification, I will list the Beauty and Brains Pageant as a possible scam, or at least not very well organized. Which is a pity, as the concept seems to have potential – concentrating on community work and personality rather than looks. Then again, it might turn out like Miss Earth did – purportedly about the environment, but all the awards were beauty based (“Best Hair”? “Best Skin”?) and the template interview response being “This is a picture of a drought/war/flood/etc. Droughts/wars/floods/etc are bad. Therefore, we must recycle.”

This brings up something interesting, though. Currently many beauty pageants (at least in the USA) have become viable sources of scholarship money. Indeed, when there aren’t many other options, young women (and occasionally young men) are able to get their education nearly or completely funded through a pageant appearance or two. Miss America, the biggest American pageant, is also one of the world’s biggest scholarship providers, awarding over $45 million in cash and scholarships for winners in national, state, and local levels. Miss America has also gone out of its way to look for more “brains”, as evidenced by its 2002 winner Erika Harold, bound for Harvard Law, who won because she outdid everyone else tremendously in the interview section even though she was beaten in the other sections.

But what about other pageants worldwide? Are they still based on beauty, or have they made efforts to look for well-rounded participants? How do you judge beauty, anyway? As one poster queried in a thread about Miss America’s ratings:

The Miss America system, from bottom to top, provides more scholarship money to women in this country than any other organization. If we rant to rail about anything, that’s the place to start. Why isn’t the largest scholarship program for women one that emphasizes academic performance and community service without regard to physical performance and appearance?

Indeed: why is the world’s largest scholarship provider not an educational body but a beauty pageant?

EDIT: They have responded to an email I sent, claiming to be 100% legitimate and answering a few questions about applications and the $300 (goes towards pageant procedures and scholarships). They responded from a Verizon email address, so I don’t know how legitimate that makes them though.

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Hopes for 2007

In about a week’s time 2006 will end and 2007 will take over. Hopefully, it will bring along some changes when it comes to youth and education. Among the changes I’d like to see:

1.People losing their obsession with grades and degrees – this obsession is starting to get really, really scary. People are in despair and depression, feeling lost and lonely, even nearly killing themselves – mainly because they feel they haven’t fulfilled society’s expectations of getting straight As and entering a prestigious university on a full scholarship. This is dangerous.

Instead of treating students like grade cattle, let’s see them as human beings – with their own interests, personalities, and temperaments – and actually look out for their welfare, not just their study skills. The cap on the number of SPM papers taken per student should help somewhat (so now there isn’t as much a competition over “how many As you have”) but let’s expand that to degrees and scholarships too.

2. People losing the entitlement complex, especially with scholarships – believe me, I know it’s hard not earning a scholarship when you feel you deserve one. I’m racking my head trying to find one I qualify for. However, as written here before, the “I-have-straight-As-therefore-I-MUST-get-a-scholarship” mentality is really getting tiring. There aren’t enough scholarships for everyone with straight As to go around, and besides, there is more to it than just grades. The same thing goes with universities and jobs too – just because you have certain characteristics doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a place in a “top university” or get a high-paying job straight off the bat.

Life requires effort. Whether that’s hard work, or smart work, depends. But things don’t just fall into your lap (unless you’re very lucky!!) – whining about it would not get you anywhere. Make an effort!

3. People being less status-conscious – a lot of issues related to the current education system can be boiled down to one word: status. Sure, it’s not a bad idea to want to go to the best university, earn the best degree, get the bes job – but are you looking for the best for you, or just what other people think is “the best”? Do you want to take Science or Medicine because you enjoy it, or because it’s got the reputation of being a “good subject”? Are you applying to Harvard because it’s what you want in a school, or because you want the “glamour” of the name? Do you want to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company because you’re dedicated to the career path, or because it gives you status?

As Denise Clark Pope, Stanford lecturer and author of Doing School: How We’re Creating A Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students notes, college (and many other things) is a match, not a trophy. Rankings and ratings don’t really matter – different methods suit different people, and what may be considered the “best in the world” wouldn’t be the best for you. (Harvard isn’t the be-all and end-all of university!) Look for the best, for you – not because you want to impress someone.

4. Different interests and ventures are encouraged and supported – right now, in Malaysia, there seems to be a few templates of “the perfect youth”. To be supported and encouraged, you’ll need to be:

  • Top of the class, taking Biology, Physics, and Chemistry, gaining a million As and earning a scholarship to an Ivy or to Oxbridge to do Medicine
  • Attractive, trendy, doing something related to music or fashion or design – which then gets you extra attention from companies like Levi’s (Ok, so I’m slightly bitter.)
  • A sports wunderkind that can outplay everyone in the Olympics, Commonweath Games and the Guinness World Records

While well-meaning, this leaves out many other youths that are doing worthy things but may not fit the scientific/trendy/sporty mould. What happened to Rakan Muda? Why is our nearest thing to a “youth grant” reality TV show? Why won’t the Government speak up for youths that may not be the typical “straight A” student but have made a life for themselves?

What we need is more support – whether from the Government, or the media, from schools, or from the public. Lives take on all forms, and we should respect and support the dreams of our youth, even if they’re atypical.

5. More options are made available for learning in all forms – one of the big issues hindering Malaysians from looking up alternative education is that many of the resources are not available to them. Many good opportunities (educational, professional, or financial) are limited to people of a certain country or nationality; even those that are open to all may be out of their reach (usually due to a lack of money or time). Yet there isn’t enough incentive given to these otherwise-interested people to pursue such interests.

More options and opportunities should be opened up – for example, providing more scholarships to subjects outside of science or medicine, or accepting university credit for out-of-the-box ventures. A lot of opportunities (such as being the Malaysian Youth delegate to the United Nations) seem to be word-of-mouth only; why not promote them to more people through wider means, such as the media? Why keep it a secret? Let’s also provide more financial support for those who do want to pursue such opportunities but may not have the means to do so.

6. Those who actually do want to go to school can go to school – for all the talk about how students must go to school lest they get their parents jailed, the Government sure isn’t making this easy for them. Many children and youths aren’t able to go to school – whether due to lack of money, having to support their family, or just not being able to pass bureaucratic hurdles (such as this case of a 7-year-old who can’t get to school due to her lack of citizenship). Then there are the schools themselves – either they’re far away, or are lacking in resources, or just aren’t ideal learning environments.

If you want people to go to school, make it worth their time! Provide funding for families in poverty so that their children can go to school instead of having to work for support. Heck, take a closer look at why poverty happens to begin with, instead of just slapping on a Band-Aid and ignoring the bigger problem. Provide more funding to schools so that they have adequate resources, facilities, and infrastructure – all this money on skyscrapers and megaprojects could help so many schools to function better. And take a close look at the current curriculum: does it promote learning, analysis, creativity, understanding? Or is it just a matter of rote memorization and test-taking?

7. Education becomes more holistic – right now, the focus of traditional education seems to be more on getting top grades and getting a job. The whole purpose of education is not at all celebrated. Instead, it becomes more about fitting a mould and following orders. Even the method of teaching is skewed – it’s less about appreciating the subject matter and more about cramming in enough information to pass a test.

Education is about learning and living. It’s about examining and exploring; interacting with yourself, others, the world; creating and imagining; implementing and taking action. It’s so much more than a paycheck or a grade slip. It’s about taking in what the world has to offer, processing it all, and giving back. Let’s go back to what education is truly about.

What are your hopes for education in 2007? Happy holidays everyone!

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