Georgetown resident Skye Bork made history July 1 when she became the first-ever D.C. winner of the national Distinguished Young Women of America scholarship program. The recent National Cathedral School graduate took home $36,500 total to attend Columbia University this fall.
Distinguished Young Women (formerly known as Junior Miss) was founded in 1958, but D.C. didn’t begin competing as a district until last year. The competition encourages high school seniors to pursue higher education, and honors their academic and extracurricular accomplishments. The first-place winner receives an automatic $30,000 to attend the university of her choice, but cash prizes can also be awarded for placing in individual categories. This year alone the program awarded $2.1 million in scholarships.
“One of the biggest challenges is educating the public in what this program is about,” said Mohra Gavankar, D.C. chair of Distinguished Young Women. “It’s not a beauty pageant.”
Gavankar said it was clear Bork might be a potential winner from the moment she applied. “All of the girls were phenomenal, but Skye was just so well-rounded,” she said. “And then when she won all five of the preliminary rounds [at nationals] the day before — we were sitting on the edge of our chairs.”
It is extremely rare for a competitor to win all five of those categories, according to Gavankar, who was also impressed by Bork’s answer to the on-stage question, “How would you define success?”
Bork, recalling that moment, said she talked about running for class office last year at National Cathedral. “I didn’t win, but success isn’t about letting failure define you,” she said in an interview. “It’s about looking past and recovering from failure.”
In addition to a GPA of 3.25 or higher, applicants to the Distinguished Young Woman program must be physically fit and display excellence in volunteering and other activities outside school.
Bork won out against 16 other contestants in D.C. and then the 50 finalists from each U.S. state, but she said the competition never felt like it was about “beating” someone else. The program “creates a really supportive network of strong and successful young women that are committed to being their best self,” Bork said.
Timothy Bork, Skye’s father, said that although he didn’t understand the competition at first, after witnessing his daughter’s experience he deemed it incredibly rewarding.
“The program is beautifully designed and professionally run,” he said. “It is one of the few solely merit-based scholarship programs in the U.S. I hope more D.C.-area young women take advantage of it.”
Syke Bork graduated from Cathedral this June and has always had an interest in international relations, business and politics. After living in Japan for a year in eighth grade, she created High School International Forums, a group that allows high school students in Japan and the U.S. to collaborate and develop policy ideas.
“When I was in Tokyo, I was met with new ideas and opinions every day,” Bork said. “I wanted to bring some of that with me back to D.C.”
In addition, Bork has always been an avid ballet dancer. Her talent routine for Distinguished Young Women was a classical ballet performance to “Carmen Suite #1 — Aragonaise.” For college, she said Columbia University’s prominent ballet ensemble was one compelling draw. Gavankar emphasized that this idea of discovering a young woman’s full potential — beyond merely academics — is one of the most important aspects of the competition.
The 51 finalists spent two weeks in Mobile, Ala., where the final competition was held, attending seminars and workshops designed to enhance career skills.
“They attend interview seminars that teach them everything from how to walk into an interview, to how to walk out from one,” Gavankar said. “We have bankers come in and teach them how to manage finances, and successful professionals in the workforce mentor them.”
Bork and Gavankar both hope that Distinguished Young Women expands in prominence in the D.C. area, for more teenage girls to take advantage of its benefits.
“When I meet these young girls, I see the future of this country,” Gavankar said. “It’s phenomenal to see their goals and what they hope to achieve.”
Past contest winners have included Diane Sawyer and Amy Goodman.