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From Ball Gown to Lab Coat

Named Miss California 2009 and recently the first runner-up in the Miss America pageant, Kristen Cavinder ’09 sets her sights on her next goal: becoming a pediatric heart surgeon.

Kristen Cavinder during the Miss America pageant's gown competition. The USC College alumna was a member of the Sigma Alpha Lambda service and honor society. Photo credit Zimbio, Inc.
Kristen Cavinder during the Miss America pageant's gown competition. The USC College alumna was a member of the Sigma Alpha Lambda service and honor society. Photo credit Zimbio, Inc.

At first glance, Kristen "Kristy" Cavinder '09 may appear to be your typical pageant queen. At 21, the Orange County native has a radiant smile, fluid grace, and the natural confidence of someone who knows that others are watching.

Cavinder is a seasoned ballet dancer, director of her high school children’s ministry, and Miss California 2009. And on January 30, she was the first runner-up out of 14,000 contestants at the Miss America pageant.

Yet donning the famed tiara was only a recent ambition of this neuroscience, pre-med alumna who wants to be a pediatric heart surgeon. Cavinder’s love of dissection and science began in high school and has grown ever since.

“I knew combining pediatrics and surgery was a natural choice for me, because no matter what I end up doing in life, I know I want to work with kids,” Cavinder said. “To see their faces light up and their eyes sparkle makes everything worth it for me.”


Kristen Cavinder during a function as Miss California. The USC College neuroscience alumna was first runner-up to Miss America 2010. Photo credit Chelle Hyde.

Cavinder wants to attend medical school, and pageants seemed an easy way to pay for her degree.

“I didn’t grow up in the pageant world and didn’t think it could be that hard,” Cavinder said. “I grew up as a ballerina so dancing came easily to me. I figured I’d walk around on a stage in an evening gown and a swimsuit and earn some money for school. I had no idea that two and a half years later, I would be competing for Miss America.”

That’s Miss America, not to be confused with Miss USA, which was embroiled in scandal after its 2009 runner-up Carrie Prejean was dethroned as Miss California USA following her comments about same-sex marriage. Cavinder laughs good-naturedly when asked if people often confuse her Miss California title with Miss California USA.

“They confuse us all the time, but they’re different systems,” Cavinder said. “The Miss America organization is rooted in scholarship money; the Miss USA system is very different, it’s more of a model search, and they win prizes.”

The Miss America contestants must have a personal platform, a talent and are rigorously interviewed on current and international events. While the emphases are beauty and poise, the contestants are not all one-dimensional beauty queens.

“We’re real girls working in our communities and promoting our platforms,” said Cavinder, whose platform was championing Make-A-Wish Foundation. “Yes we wear gowns and bathing suits, but we’re also intelligent women who want to make a difference. I had no idea that pageants would change my life so much. I am more aware of the world around me, I am more physically fit, better at ballet, and more confident.”


Neuroscience alumna Kristen Cavinder, a ballet en pointe dancer, performs the talent portion in the Miss America competition during the Jan. 30 pageant. Photo credit Tom Donoghue Photography.

USC College helped Cavinder fulfill her dreams by giving her an opportunity to study both medicine and dance, participate in various organizations like the USC Repertory Dance Company, join a sorority and volunteer for the Joint Educational Project. She was able to take stimulating classes such as “The Biological Basis of Neurological Diseases” with Michael Quick, professor of biological sciences and executive vice dean of academic affairs in the College, which helped strengthen her love for medicine. Her alma mater, she said, also helped her prepare for the pageants.

“USC had everything to offer me to make me a great candidate for Miss California,” Cavinder said. “The level and standard of education is so much higher than other universities. It has really pushed me to excel and has helped me become a more well-rounded person.”

What’s next for Miss California?

"Taking the MCATS," Cavinder said of medical admission exams. "My pageant career is almost over [she is Miss California for six more months]. My goal now is going back to school and so I can put my scholarship money to good use.”