Miss Perception

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

Distinguished Young Women Program Has Many Scholarships, Few Applicants

By Mary Thayer Haugen | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 12.18.18

Here’s an unusual problem for an organization to have. The Distinguished Young Women program of Frederick County has thousands of dollars in scholarships to award each year, yet very few students compete for them.

It’s a perplexing issue since all female students in their junior year of high school with a minimum grade-point average of 3.0 are welcome to participate, and the program costs nothing to enter. In addition to money for college, the program builds life skills, fosters connections in the community and is a college application bonus. So, why aren’t more girls participating?

Nicole Chafitz Orr, chairperson of Distinguished Young Women of Frederick County, thinks she knows. “A lot of girls don’t start looking for scholarships until they are seniors, so they don’t know about DYW. But, many of those who do think it’s a beauty pageant and they’re not interested. It’s actually the oldest national scholarship program for girls in the nation. It’s in every county, in every state of the country.”

The misconception likely stems from the program’s former name, America’s Junior Miss. To help dispel the notion that the program is a pageant, the organization changed to its current name in 2010. Everything else has remained the same for the past 62 years.

Chafitz Orr is a former winner and the scholarships she won covered the cost of her first year of college. It is now her mission to spread the word and try to get more girls involved. She wants everyone to know: There’s no swimsuit competition, no gowns, no crown, no sash. It’s not a pageant.

Instead, girls compete in a talent competition their junior year and winners represent the program at community events and speaking engagements during their senior year. (Their title reflects the year in which they graduate.) Scholarships are paid directly to the college of their choice.

“I think it’s the word ‘talent’ that scares everyone,” says Sonia Bowie, life skills coordinator for DYW of Frederick County. “But it shouldn’t. If a young woman doesn’t think she has a talent, we’ll find one for her.”

Talent in the contest can be almost anything. It does not follow the traditional form of piano, voice or dance. In fact, the program has seen some very original entries such as the speed paint-er who did a full street art mural in 90 seconds to the amazement of the crowd.

Another year, there was a soccer goalie who came out in full gear and talked about how much she loved playing her position. She scored highly due to her passion for the sport.

Bowie and Chafitz Orr are accomplished at helping girls turn their passions into a presentable talent. In fact, they volunteer hundreds of hours each year mentoring, coaching and nurturing the girls in a variety of ways to help the contestants reach their full potential.

“If a young woman is in need of anything to complete the program, it’s not a problem,” says Bowie. “We share, we borrow—I will find it for them somewhere. We don’t want girls to feel they can’t participate because they don’t think they can afford it.”


The goal of DYW is not only to give away scholarships, but to also give young women the skills they need to succeed after high school. “The life skills are my favorite part,” says Chafitz Orr. “I like to call it, ‘Not Your Grandmother’s Finishing School.’”

One day the girls attend a workshop at The Temple: A Paul Mitchell Partner School in Downtown Frederick to learn how to apply age appropriate make-up, get suggestions for how to style their hair and how to dress for an interview.

Each student is assigned a mentor to learn how to successfully navigate an interview. They also learn how to shake hands properly and make eye contact; how to handle social media; and how to write a thank-you note and address a proper envelope. “These are bright girls with high GPAs, but many of them don’t know where to put a stamp. They’ve just never done it,” Chafitz Orr says.

Sanjana Jha of Frederick was named the 2019 Distinguished Young Woman of Northern Frederick County this past spring. She plans to be a dermatologist. She is a senior at Governor Thomas Johnson High School this year and won more than $6,000 in scholarships.

“I saw such an improvement in my interviewing skills after going through the program,” Jha says. “I really believe those skills helped me get my first choice of summer internships at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick. … You go in to this program as a great student and come out as a great leader. And it doesn’t end after the contest. It’s a connection for life.”

“I learned things I didn’t even realize I needed to know. The confidence you get from this program will last a lifetime,” says Shelby Platner of Ijamsville, the 2019 Distinguished Young Woman of Southern Frederick County. She is a senior at Oakdale High School this year and won more than $8,000 in scholarships.


Girls apply for the program by Jan. 1 each year, but there is an informative orientation before the students are asked to fully commit. Then there are a series of workshops to teach the skills needed to compete in the contest in March.

Understanding the busy schedules these students keep, Chafitz Orr tries to have the girls do as much as possible online.

Winners at the county level compete at the state competition and if they prevail there, they will move on to the national event.

Many of the past participants keep in touch with Chafitz Orr and Bowie. The duo likes to think of it as a sisterhood where the young women can reconnect for assistance, support or to give back to the program. “I hear just as much from the ones who didn’t win scholarships as I do from the winners,” says Chafitz Orr. “Often, it’s the girls who think they can’t do it that are the ones who get the most out of it.”

The 2020 DYW contest will be held Saturday, March 16, 2019, at Tuscarora High School. For more information on the program, visit www.frederick.md.distinguishedyw.org.

Frederick Magazine