Crowning Moment

The first thing that I was told about Nationals was that I would meet some of the kindest and most accomplished women that I would ever meet in my life.  When someone tells you that you are going to a national beauty pageant and that you will make lifelong friendships, you don’t necessarily believe them. Or at least I didn’t.  I thought to myself, “We’ll see.”  But, I can honestly say that from the moment that I arrived at the airport, I was humbled and amazed by the women that I met and the sisterhood that they extended to me.  
This is what sets the International System apart from, and above other systems.  The fact that the contestants’ collective reputation for kindness, warmth and dedication to their platforms precedes them, says all that you need to know.  It’s like the DoubleTree Hotel turns into this incubator of greatness and one can barely withstand the weeklong wait to see the outcome.
The first person that I met was Deshauna Barber, Miss Virginia.  She was my roommate and we met at the airport and shared a taxi to the hotel.  Aside from the fact that we became fast friends, I will always remember Deshauana for one reason, she literally gave the shoes off of her feet to two of her fellow contestants.  The level of generosity that she extended to all of us throughout the week is a testament to the size of her heart.
My wonderful Director, DeShawn Shepard flew into action as soon as we arrived.  Helping us unpack, making sure we had all the items listed on our wardrobe sheet and she even brought her magic cache of extra jewelry and clutches!  I managed to go to the hotel restaurant in my downtime and  there I met two women who not only became my friends but became apart of my support system.  Toni Findley, the Arkansas Firecracker and Stefanie DeLauri, the New Jersey bombshell. 
Me and Toni

Me, Stefanie and Deshauna before Orientation

Before I knew it, it was time to go to Orientation.  I was excited and nervous.  Mainly I was nervous because I was wearing a white dress and Ciji plus white, typically equals disaster! But it wasn’t and I had a blast.

Quick group photo before we head in!

The next day we went to the John Hancock Observatory, the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Boys and Girls Club.  I sat next to Whitney Young, Miss Washington, and I think I nearly talked her head off!  While I loved feeling like I was on top of the world at the Observatory and checking out the animals (especially the lions!) at the Zoo, my favorite part of the day was the time I spent at the Boys and Girls Club.  I met the sweetest little girl. After spending the afternoon with her, hearing what was on her mind and sharing the limited wisdom that I have accumulated in 27 years, what started out as an arranged “blind play date” turned into the realization that sitting before me was the reason that God sent me to Chicago. She hugged me tight before I left and said, “I’m really going to miss you.  I had so much fun.”  Riding the bus back, I thought to myself, “Mission Accomplished.”  Making top ten was no longer at the top of my wish list, I felt that God’s purpose had been fulfilled and I could go home knowing that I had a lasting positive impact on someone’s life. 

You don’t know my life!   Next, there was Group Photo.  Afterwards there was the contestants’ dinner.  It was my privilege to listen to a presentation by Eddie Peterson.  I felt as though he was speaking directly to me. His words forever changed my outlook and for that I am eternally grateful and indebted to Eddie.  

Miss Illinois International, Aubry Bozzano.  Aubry is the epitome of elegance, style and sophistication.

Margo Huffman, Miss Teen Maryland International.  I adore Margo! She is truly a class act.  A Christian girl with a heart the size of Texas, I can’t wait to see the great things that she will accomplish.

Then all of a sudden it seemed like someone pressed fast forward.  There was the Princess Ball at the Skokie Library.  Cuteness Overload!! Next, it was off to teen prelims! I showed up in the lobby feeling fantastic in my all white, jersey Jovani dress and then in walks Miss Midwest, Megan Herickhoff and Miss Pennsylvania, Julia Pauline!!  Normally having another girl, not to mention two, wearing a dress similar to yours would be a level 10 crisis!  But not for us!  We thought it was hilarious! 
The best way to describe Megan is that she is the girl you meet at summer camp who tries her best to make sure that you don’t feel homesick.  She was so sweet to me.  Julia Pauline is a rock star! We became each other’s cheerleader and I can’t wait to make a trip to PA :)

Mary's Angels

Next: Interviews!  I love talking to people, but it is a little different when you are being judged.  The night before Interviews when I said my prayers, I didn’t ask God to help me answer the judges’ questions in the right way, rather, I asked him to help me to be myself. 

My interview group

And then, it was our turn to take the stage.    Luckily I had received great advice from Mary Tate so I was ready to go!   Backstage was a cyclone of AB stones, hair spray and cutlets!! It seemed like as soon Prelims started it was over and we were left waiting and wondering. 

Goofing off backstage!

I normally have nerves of steel, but on Finals night, I was a wreck.  I kept telling myself that I would have an answer after the opening number.  Before we went on, I huddled backstage with Miss North Dakota, Stacy Schaffer, and we did silly dances to get rid of the nerves. I don’t remember the opening number, all I remember was the intense music that accompanied the top ten announcement.  I wasn’t expecting much; I was happy to be there and pleased with the friends that I had made and my experience at the Boys and Girls Club.  When they called my name, I was so surprised and humbled that I barely knew what to do.  Luckily the production staff had drilled us enough that I knew to look for the number and stand on it!   Then they called Margo’s name and I became overwhelmed!  I almost cried in excitement for her. 

Our exit only appeared graceful, I can assure you that as soon as we were offstage, shoes came off and we bolted down the steps to get ready for onstage interview.  I ran my 30 second speech as I got dressed and headed back to the stage just in time to hear Margo.  As soon as she exited she gave me a high five and a hug, and it was my turn.  I don’t remember what I said; I just remember thinking, “The hard part is over!” 
When I got back to the dressing room, I was amazed at the outpouring of love and support that I received.  These women had my back!! They made a point to let me know that if there was anything that I needed, they were there for me.  Stefanie gave me a much needed pep talk and I was off!
I knew that the competition would fly by, but I made it a point to have fun on stage and soak in every moment. I had already told myself that this was the last pageant that I would compete in and I didn’t want it to be complete blur.  Soon enough we were back onstage and names were being called.  I stood there clapping for my fellow contestants and pleased to be in the top ten.
Then the words that everyone was waiting to hear, “Miss International 2011 is….” Did she really say my name?!?!  I was STUNNED!  Flabbergasted!  Gobsmacked!  I could not believe it!  I looked into the audience at my mom and brother and they were going wild.  Then I looked at my normally composed Director and she was clapping and jumping frantically, and although I still didn’t believe it, I walked to the center of the stage. I distinctly remember looking into the audience and seeing an overwhelming display of happiness for me.  I was floored!
Everything after that was a whirlwind!  The contestants rushed me and with tears in their eyes congratulated me.  That was the best part! Having Mary Swenson, Miss Minnesota squeeze me and say “Girl we are so happy for you!!” and Miss British, Victoria Coleman, in her voice that sounds like music say, “I am so very happy right now at this moment!”  Stefanie saying to me “You did it!”   Contestants telling me that they told their families and friends to cheer me on.  It makes me cry just thinking about it.  There were so many others, please don’t take it to heart if I left you out because I appreciate and remember everything that was said to me and done for me.  
My post would not be complete if I didn’t tell you about my wonderful sister queen, Mrs. Maryland International, Sandra Bryan-Grier. Every morning and sometimes at night, she sent me encouraging text messages.  She kept me sane and when I was feeling tired, gave me that extra push to keep me going.  Thank you Sandra, for everything that you do and continue to do for me :)
After the photos and the tears, DeShawn and I went to the dressing room to collect my things and I was the beneficiary of yet one more act of kindness.  Deshauna had packed my things for me so that it would be easier for me to leave for the Coronation Ball.  Wow!
I had a fantastic time at the Coronation Ball and got to meet Jurnee for the first time!   I still couldn’t believe it, even with the weight of the crown on my head.  It finally sunk in the next day when I was at the airport, eating chips, guacamole and hot wings.  I called DeShawn and said, “I’m Miss International?” and she said, “Yes sunshine, you sure are!”

Ciji Dodds


  1. Ciji!! I absolutely love you!!! Make a trip to PA whenever you want! You have a place to stay and a great mall to shop at!!!

  2. My Sister Queen Ciji - You're welcome. I would not have it any other way. You were there to encourage and inspire me everyday. I am so happy for you and proud of your hard work. The world will now get to see your passion, purpose and dedication that we have seen up close. I will continue to be here to support you in any way possible. "Pretty Girls Rock"! Love You!


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