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This York College student is building her best self, one pageant at a time

Madison Kennelly walks on stage during the Miss New Jersey pageant.

Madison Kennelly trains hard for her sport. She started competing when she was just three years old. Her coaches push her to be the best she can be. One day, she dreams of being in the Olympics. Well, her sport’s version of the Olympics anyway: the Miss America pageant.

Madison a senior Mass Communication major at York College of Pennsylvania, knows some people see her sport as just a contest to see who is the prettiest, but that hasn’t been her experience in 18 years of pageant competition. “It’s about how you present yourself,” she says. It’s not just about how you look — it’s more holistic— it’s how you speak and carry yourself, your talent (Madison plays saxophone), and your community service. Every competition considers a candidate’s social impact initiative. For Madison, that’s her chance to share her passion for volunteering with her pet therapy dog, Peanut.

Madison and Peanut have volunteered at libraries, hospitals, and nursing homes since Madison was 12. She’s seen the impact her dog can have on people, such as a woman who’d lost mobility after a stroke. The only thing the woman could move was her left arm, which Madison placed on Peanut. A tear rolled down the woman’s face, and she made the first sound she’d been able to make since the stroke. The woman’s whole family was there, and they started crying and hugging.

That moment proved to Madison the importance of community service. It’s why she’s grateful to compete in pageants because they allow her to share her experiences and raise awareness for pet therapy.

Showing off her Spartan pride

Madison says competing in pageants has helped her become who she is today. They’ve taught her time management, public speaking, networking skills, and how to be comfortable among all kinds of people.

They’ve also helped her financially. Madison just finished her junior year at York College. Scholarships she earned through the Miss New Jersey competition paid her way through three study abroad courses in Africa, Costa Rica, and India.

In June, her pageant and school life collided in another way at the Miss New Jersey competition. All the contestants wore clothes from their colleges during a production number. Madison sported Spartan sweatpants, a T-shirt, and custom-made York College Converse shoes as she danced across the stage. “It was really great that I got to show off my York College pride,” she says.

Building her future

Madison learned about York College from her mother, Mary Jo, a class of ’88 York College alumna. When the two visited campus for an alumni dinner, Madison knew she’d found her future. “I’ve been in love with York since the first day I went to visit sophomore year of high school,” she says.

It was during her second semester at York College when Madison first picked up a video camera. As a Mass Communication major, she’s learning how to use her creativity to tell stories through that medium. “You can create almost anything with a camera and editing software,” she says.

Despite her years of competition, she doesn’t like the spotlight of being in front of the camera. What she really wants is to become a film producer — to move to California and just start filming. “That’s the big dream,” she says.

Now, she’s building up her resume, juggling three different video-related internships over the summer while preparing for her next pageant. She’s constantly working to better herself, to become the best she possibly can be in her future career and her life.

Even as she looks to her future beyond college, she’s still chasing down her first dream: to compete in her sport’s Olympics.