By David Halbrook and Alicia Constant
Photos by Art Cox and Michelle Stevens
Patrick Henry College
Teresa Scanlan during an interview
Tastefully arranged in the Nebraska History Museum’s exhibit for that state’s first Miss America are telling artifacts from PHC sophomore Teresa Scanlan’s last seven years of life. Within it hangs the white gown with over 2,000 beads and crystals that she wore at 17, upon becoming youngest recipient to win the Miss America title since 1937. The Mootsies Tootsies shoes with jelly straps she started wearing to pageants at age 13 are also there, as is a bouquet of duct tape flowers given her at an Ohio duct tape festival.
But even back then, as local politicians lauded her beauty and soaring potential, Scanlan wrestled with deep, conflicted thoughts about the price of fame, beauty, and accomplishment.
Is my whole life going to have to be trying to fill this museum with more accomplishments? she wondered. I don’t even want to live another day if I’m constantly going to be striving to reach the next rung on the ladder.
As her reign as Miss America ended and she began what can only be described as a dramatic transition from life as a traveling dignitary and national celebrity to college freshman, a quiet, almost insidious form of post-traumatic stress began to set in, subtly at first, yet intensifying as the semester wore on. The pressure of maintaining her public life as a former Miss America, traveling around the country most weekends while simultaneously balancing the rigorous academic demands at PHC, swiftly brought Scanlan to a crisis point. She had begun, she now sees, to reach the end of herself.
To maintain her grades during the worst of the weekend touring grind, she reveals, almost apologetically, that she pulled eight all-nighters in the fall semester alone, and two more in the spring. And with every test and every paper, she fought an overwhelming fear of failing, of letting everybody down.
“For the first part of the year I had been sticking to my old ways and trying to handle everything myself, and it got worse and worse,” Scanlan recalls. “The depression was really bad, and the anxiety got horrible.” She admits she had struggled with thoughts she had never talked to anyone about. “Every week this past year, I was thinking of quitting.”
In March, midway through her second semester, she finally talked about her depression to her parents and reached out for help. For the first time in two years, she realized she had friends she could trust, and that she needed to rely both on God and on the community of believers around her.
“I’ve opened up about things this year that I never, never had, to anybody,” Scanlan said. “There’s something about [the PHC] community that fosters that: there’s not judgment, there’s help, support, and encouragement…. March was the very lowest point of my life, and I’m grateful to God to say it’s been uphill from there.”
Scanlan attending PHC's chapel service
After her first year at Patrick Henry College, Scanlan says she’s come out stronger, humbler, and closer to God and other people.
She was surprised by the willingness of PHC’s students, staff and faculty to seek her out on a personal level and treat her as “just Teresa.”
She was “blown away” by the number of times she would share something with a fellow student and they would say on the spot, "Let’s pray about that." “I had never had friends in my life, my age, who were taking that kind of spiritual lead,” she said.
Yet the acceptance of the PHC community brought another challenge: learning how to connect on a personal level.
“I’m actually a very introverted person, and so when it comes to person-to-person interaction and not having my title as Miss America precede me… it scares me to death,” she said. “Traveling all the time, you get this sense of secrecy: your life is your own and nobody knows anything [about you]. It’s this constant there, uproot, there, uproot. You don’t actually have to deal with opening up to people.”
Living in community also taught her important lessons about humility, both in her own life and in the evangelical Christian community. At freshman orientation, she recalls Dr. Farris saying, “The biggest thing I fear for you is that you will graduate after four years here as a prideful person.”
This year, she realized she had been looking at others’ struggles and thinking, “'Oh, I don’t struggle with this or this or this.' That’s prideful, and… I’m staying very detached from other people,” she said. “We can close our eyes, stick our nose up in the air, pat ourselves on the back and be like, ‘No, we’re doing everything right, we’re great,’ and it’s really dangerous.”
When she was traveling, she would routinely hear people tell her, “Christians are hypocritical,” or “Conservatives are intolerant,” and she would think, “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong.”
After last year, Scanlan said she has learned the importance of changing ourselves before we can change the world.
Clay in His Hands
In March of 2012, Scanlan’s Croatian uncle invited Teresa to visit the orphanage he had started years before in Haiti, asking her to come and serve and help raise money.
“I thought, ‘I’ll go there for a week, help with this fundraiser, and be done,’” she said. “Instead I went down there and it completely changed my life… and I came back incredibly on fire.”
Scanlan (l) performing in a parody at PHC's annual Harmonicomedy
She stayed two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s and met 46 kids housed at the orphanage, ranging from ages 1 to 16.
“You fall in love with every single one,” she said. “The circumstances they’re in are completely unimaginable to the first world.”
Scanlan had previously worked in inner cities, but had never been to a third world country, let alone Haiti – the poorest country in the world. She saw babies with ants crawling on them, people in abject poverty, and mass destruction and lack of infrastructure after devastating earthquakes.
Having learned far more from the kids than she could ever hope to teach them, she plans to go back every Christmas, a holiday that brings both dread and anticipation to the young orphans. The kids were certain they weren’t getting any Christmas presents, she shared, then described how, on Christmas Eve, she and other volunteers decorated the main room and put presents under the tree. The kids were overjoyed, and Scanlan realized something as simple as providing a small Christmas present can brighten a child’s otherwise-dismal outlook.
“Every time I go back it resets my priorities and helps me realize how much we have here that they just couldn’t even imagine,” she said. “I was always imagining, ‘Oh, I’m going to have this house, and do this, and whatever.’ I completely just destroy all that when I go there, and realize I want to live as minimalistically as possible and do everything I can for them… it’s not feeling guilty, it’s just wanting to help them.”
Scanlan plans on adopting in the future: “Once you fall in love with kids like that… you feel like they’re your own children, and if your own child was in that situation, there’s literally nothing you wouldn’t do for them.
“It’s so encouraging to say to the Lord, ‘I’m clay in Your hands, and I’m going to do whatever You wish for me.’ I’m no longer going to try to keep achieving and achieving for the sake of praise, accolades, and not disappointing other people,” Scanlan said.
“People may be disappointed if I graduate PHC and don’t go to law school and decide to be a missionary in Haiti—which I’m actually strongly considering at this point. And they might say, ‘You could have been President’ and ‘You could have done this,’ but I’m finally realizing that all that matters is that I please my God.”
As she begins her second year at PHC, Teresa has begun to recognize that the person she is becoming is, in important ways, quite different from the youthful Miss America, traveling the celebrity circuit, she knew but a short time ago.
“This year I'm really beginning to feel like a different person in so many ways,” she explained. “I'm slowly learning to slow down, to relax, and to stop worrying and stressing. I'm starting to learn to trust God more and more each day. So that means I'm so excited to be back in school and beginning year two at PHC! It's been such a joy seeing so many familiar faces and meeting new ones. I'm loving every minute and I'm truly looking forward to the rest of this year. I hope to invest more in the people around me, to learn as much as I can, and to enjoy every moment of each new day God gives me.”