Alabama native Jessica Baeder is our new inspiration for multiple reasons (think Miss Congeniality meets Cadet Kelly)! If being crowned as 2018 MISS AMERICA’S OUTSTANDING TEEN for her role-model-worthy attitude, her talent in dance and her activism against hunger wasn’t impressive enough (plus winning thousands of dollars in scholarship money), she still had one more dream to make come true: Jessica had always wanted to serve in the military, following in the footsteps of her father, grandfather and great-grandfathers. So this multi-talented gal accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she plans to study engineering this fall (yay for girls in STEM!). We caught up with her during a break in her basic training when she was in Orlando to crown her new successor and got to hear about more of her story!

What drew you to the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program? I love this organization because of its emphasis on scholarship and service and I saw it as an amazing opportunity to develop my platform and my talent and to also gain scholarship money along the way to open more opportunities.

What has the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen program taught you that is helping you in your day to day life? I’ve definitely gained more confidence in myself. Being put on stage in front of an audience full of people and having to answer an on-stage question was something that completely terrified me when I was 15 years old. It wasn’t until I was able to realize that having confidence in myself to stand on the stage in front of all of these people can be what gives me the courage to go forward and answer that question. That may seem like a small thing, but in the moment it was something that I had to find that confidence in myself to overcome.

Tell us about your first weeks at the United States Military Academy. I’m almost closing out week four of my cadet training, so it’s definitely been an experience. Lots of challenges that I’ve been faced with I haven’t ever dealt with before; it’s a completely new experience. And it’s been really interesting to see how I’m able to handle these challenges when put in uncomfortable situations.

When we first started they told us that the best way to become a great leader is to first become a great follower. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re doing what they tell us and respecting our superiors and our authority and learning that from the ground up.

Here [in cadet training] you feel like you are doing things wrong all the time and that’s kind of the point to correct everything you are doing wrong so you can do things right. So having that confidence in myself to realize that the mistakes do not define me, breaking me down does not define me, that I am still the same person and I’m still Jessica no matter what people say to me or what corrections I get every day keeps me moving forward. Plus waking up every morning, I am reminded what an amazing opportunity it is to be here.

What advice do you have for girls who might be intimidated by the thought of going to a military academy and/or pursuing a STEM degree? Some girls may be intimidated because they don’t see enough girls in these roles in STEM or at the service academies. I feel like the biggest factor right now is that young girls around the country may not be seeing a solid female role model in what they are wishing to pursue. So realize that you can become that role model yourself and to go into the STEM world and inspire other girls with the amazing things you can do.

What would you say to inspire girls who struggle with self-esteem issues? Personally for me I get strength from my faith and pray every day for peace and courage and strength to get through the day. I think it’s important to just know that you were made the way you were supposed to be made. We’re not all supposed to look the same or to act the same. If we all did – it would be a really boring world. So just finding the confidence in yourself to know this is who I’m supposed to be and this is how I’m supposed to live my life. Focusing on the fact that we are all different can really help girls to believe in themselves.

Your family has a strong service history with your father, grandfather and great-grandfathers all being in the military. How does that impact your West Point experience? I told my dad that whenever I am struggling I look down at the name tape on the right side of my chest—Baeder—and I realize that the family that I have come from is also who has helped me to grow and to be the strong person that I can be. Finding that strength from my family and knowing that my dad went through something similar in his basic training has helped me get through it.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? I will be graduating and I’m really excited to get to serve in the big Army. I am still deciding which way I might want to branch but now I am interested in possibly majoring in law and possibly wanting to be a JAG officer. Hopefully I will be in a branch that I enjoy, stationed somewhere that I love and having the best time that I can as a Second Lieutenant!