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Books and beauty: This girl has it all

Lee Ann Herring-Olvedo '11 defies all stereotypes, and with a vengeance. The junior is concentrating in Educational Studies, she hopes to enter Brown's Masters of Arts in Teaching program and she plans to apply to Yale Law School — on top of maintaining her responsibilities within the Miss Rhode Island Scholarship Program.

"It really is a unique experience," Herring-Olvedo said. "But I want young women to see that you don't have to give up intellect or outer beauty — it's not one or the other."
Indeed, the Miss Rhode Island Scholarship Program in which Herring-Olvedo is a contestant has as its tagline, "Some people call them Beauty Queens, we call them Scholars!"

"The young women that get involved with us are all looking for scholarships to better their education, whether with school loans or even graduate work," said Debi D'Iorio, the program's executive director. "That's the kind of girl that we want to attract."

As part of her duties as Miss Providence County, Herring-Olvedo has initiated an on-campus book drive to benefit students at two Providence elementary schools.

Herring-Olvedo said she chose to run the book drive — "Bears Care" ­— to "advocate literacy" in schools where more than half of third and fourth graders fall behind adequate literacy levels because they didn't have enough books. The books — ideally new to gently worn ones in English or Spanish for kindergarten through the fifth grade — will be collected in bins placed throughout Brown's campus and donated to William D'Abate and Asa Messer Elementary Schools in Providence.

Herring-Olvedo is running the book drive in conjunction with the Swearer Center, whose Classroom Program organizes Brown students to visit these elementary schools as literacy tutors.

Herring-Olvedo, who joined the program this year, currently mentors a first-grade girl at Asa Messer.

"What I love about it is seeing so much energy," she said. "Being a college student we can lose sight of the fun of learning, and these first graders have so much passion and energy."

She described her mentee's transformation from someone who did not like books to an avid reader. "It's great to see that she's not willing to give up," she said. "And it's a great message — if a first grader's not willing to give up, neither should we" be willing.

Herring-Olvedo has also forged a connection between the two Providence elementary schools and two schools from Texas, her home state. The Texas schools will contribute books as well as raising money, and students from Providence and Texas will be matched as pen pals.

"I created this program because I think it's important that we promote literacy and the idea of reaching out on both local and state levels," she said. "Literacy is such an important issue. It promotes the ideas of starting early, as well as of success and scholarship."

In addition to the book drive, Herring-Olvedo — who manages the Brown football team — is working on organizing an initiative called Touch Down Champs, which aims to "empower youth through literacy and athletic engagement in their community." The initiative, Herring-Olvedo said, "combines (her) two passions — literacy and athletics."

She added in an e-mail to The Herald that it promotes the ideas of "leadership, teamwork and success in and beyond the classroom."

D'Iorio said the pageant's focus on community service tends to attract contestants with a strong sense of civic responsibility. "Most of the time when the gals pick a platform, it's based on some kind of personal experience," she said. She named the 2008 winner, Francesca Simone, as an example: Simone chose Alzheimer's research and awareness as her cause, since one of her grandparents was a victim of the disease.

Herring-Olvedo visibly beamed as she recounted her plans. It is evident that D'Iorio was right in gushing that she is "just so dedicated to her platform." And, Herring-Olvedo explained, this is very much the product of having participated in beauty pageants since the age of five. "I love being able to advocate any platform," she said. "Beauty pageants are more than just wearing a sash and a crown — they give you the chance to act as an ambassador, to give back to the community. So many little girls look up to you."

Two other Brown students in the past have participated in the Miss Rhode Island pageant, one of whom won a $1,000 scholarship. "Brown is the perfect place to do something like this," Herring-Olvedo said. "Here, you can be typical and atypical at the same time."

"We're all passionate about something here. I'm just passionate about this," she said.


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