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Crown jewel of North Dakota

Cara Mund, state’s first Miss America, talks giving, gumption and government at Women for Philanthropy lunch

Miss America 2018 Cara Mund
Miss America 2018 Cara Mund was in the (UND alumni) house, the Gorecki Alumni Center, on Tuesday, for the UND Alumni Association & Foundation’s annual Women for Philanthropy luncheon. Image courtesy of Milo Smith.

The Gorecki Alumni Center was flooded with florals and pops of pastel on April 10, as dozens of female leaders dressed for a spring day that still felt like winter.

But amidst the seasonally bright attire, a glittering crown stole the show.

Miss America 2018 Cara Mund was in the house – and although she was wearing the tiara, she shared a common thread with these ladies.

“There are four points to the Miss America crown – service, style, scholarship and success. And, even before I was Miss America, I have embodied those qualities my entire life, because I came from North Dakota,” she said.

Mund, a native of Bismarck and Miss North Dakota 2017, was invited to deliver the keynote address at the annual Women for Philanthropy luncheon, hosted by the UND Alumni Association & Foundation and sponsored by the UND Panhellenic Council, UND Student Government, SEI and Dakota Medical Foundation.

The gathering brings together women of all ages to celebrate community giving, empowerment and leadership, and Mund has become well-versed in all three.

Miss America told the audience that, when she was only 14 years old, she lost a friend to cancer. She took the initiative to organize a Make-a-Wish Foundation Fashion Show, with the hopes of raising $1,000 for the organization.

She more than doubled that goal.

The Make-a-Wish Foundation turned the fashion show into an annual event, and 10 years later, it has raised more than $78,000 and turned into Mund’s pageant platform issue.

“When doing philanthropic work and giving back – I didn’t realize what I was really doing at the time,” she said. “It just seemed like the logical thing to do.”

Cara Mund
Mund is a native of Bismarck and was crowned Miss North Dakota 2017 before going on to become the first Miss America from North Dakota. Image courtesy of Milo Smith.

Power over adversity

It would appear that a woman with the beauty, brains and drive of Miss America wouldn’t have a problem finding the fast track in life. But, as Mund tells it, she had to overcome a lot of naysaying to find her way to the crown.

She was determined to attend an Ivy League school, so, in tenth grade, she told her guidance counselor about her goal.

“He looked at me and he said, ‘There’s no way a female like you is going to go to an Ivy League school,’” she recounted to the gasps of the crowd. “I was so determined to prove him wrong.”

When Mund’s acceptance letter to Brown University arrived, she walked it into the counselor’s office. “I put it on his desk, and I said, ‘Remember when you said I wouldn’t go to an Ivy League school?’” she laughed as the women before her burst into applause.

Her perseverance continued as she graduated from Brown with honors and interned with U.S. Sen. John Hoeven, R – N.D. But something still tugged at her.

She tried for a final time to capture the crown of Miss North Dakota, after three initial failed pursuits that she optimistically calls “just training up to that point.”

The day after she was finally crowned Miss North Dakota, Mund started receiving feedback about things she would have to change to have a chance at winning the Miss America title, from cutting her hair to not revealing where she went to college (Brown, critics said, was too intimidating).

“There was no reason for me to go to Miss America and be someone that I’m not. That girl up on that stage needs to be the same girl off of it,” she said. “When it took so long to get the Miss North Dakota crown, some people told me I should try for a different state. But it always came back to, if I’m a state title holder, there’s no other state I’d rather be than North Dakota.”

She did it her own way, and made history for the state, becoming the first Miss North Dakota elevated to the level of Miss America.

“They didn’t say, ‘The new Miss America is Cara Mund.’ They said, ‘The new Miss America is North Dakota.’ It was such a moment of pride,” she said, beaming her signature genuine smile.

Cara Mund
When the time comes at the end of the year for Mund to hang up her sash, she intends to pursue law school, and ultimately sees herself entering the realm of government – becoming a senator or the first female governor of North Dakota. Image courtesy of Milo Smith.

Empowering women

When the time comes at the end of the year for Mund to hang up her sash, she has no plans to slow down. She intends to pursue law school, and ultimately sees herself entering the realm of government – becoming a senator or the first female governor of North Dakota.

“Sometimes you just need that person to lead the way. If that’s not me, that’s great, too. We just need more women in that political atmosphere,” Mund told UND Today. “Women are the ones advocating for other women’s rights. Today, we represent 50 percent of the population, so we should have 50 percent representation.”

Alumni Association & Foundation CEO DeAnna Carlson Zink says celebrating that female voice – of confidence, of authenticity, of mutual support – is what makes this yearly event so essential. Women are able to network, share experiences, and lift the potential of young ladies through giving back financially (through scholarship donations) and professionally (through mentorship).

“We need not just role models in leadership, but role models in philanthropy, and to let women know that these are conversations we should have, and can be having – but then also to pass that conversation onto the next generation,” Carlson Zink said.

“It’s so important to really connect with the mentors around you, as well as other people who are just as inspired by community service and philanthropy,” said Becca Bahnmiller, executive director of the Community Foundation of Grand Forks. “It’s fun to see how women are giving back in so many different ways.”

As attendees lined up to take a final photo with Miss America, Brittany Caillier, director of philanthropy for the Community Violence Intervention Center, captured in words what static snapshots couldn’t convey.

“Cara is an outstanding representative of our state and what we represent through the values that she spoke of – leadership and service,” she said. “That embodies so much of North Dakota.”