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Mr. and Miss University International, More Than a Beauty Pageant

Global competitions like the Olympics or beauty pageants have long united the international community in friendly competition despite politics and language barriers. One less well-known event is the annual Mr. and Miss University International Pageant, which brings college students together to not only compete, but also to serve. One organization is making a difference in the lives of college students from around the world.

The Mr. and Miss University International Pageant began in 1978 in Japan as an endeavor aimed at the restoration and redefinition of human beauty. It has since been held in Seoul, Moscow, Beijing, New York and Manila. And unlike most pageants, outward appearance is only a small focus of the judges. Other qualities like character, talent and community service are more heavily emphasized.

The road to the international pageant starts around this time every year as about 20 countries select a male and female representative. The selection process in each country is different. In Thailand and Kenya, for example, preliminary pageants are held. Organizers in North and South America, however, make selections based on applications from prospective candidates. All national winners are then invited to compete in the Mr. and Miss University International Pageant.

The current titleholders are Seong Jin Lee of Korea and Nataliya Savelieva of Russia. Along with attending school full time, they are also active as peace ambassadors, promoting unity and service on college campuses.

Miss University International 2004, Robai Musilivi Khamasi of Kenya, says she decided to take part in the pageant because she knew it was more than just a beauty pageant.

"What makes me a strong supporter is their beliefs and their values," she said. "And what they really want to achieve in the end is peace - everyone living as brothers and sisters. That's what I really support."

While the actual pageant is only one night, contestants spend a busy three weeks in the host country attending dinners, meeting with dignitaries and competing in preliminary contests in talent and speech. The speech must address global issues. Each contestant also must have an ethnic costume and formal wear to model in the pageant.

Along with these phases of competition, students are judged on how well they perform service under strenuous conditions. April Deller, Miss University USA 2004, won a service award for her work at the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. Deller recalls her experience at the DMZ, where the contestants spent four days and three nights.

"I pulled a lot of weeds, some people went out to the rice paddies and worked in the rice fields," she recalled. "My group stayed more around the schoolhouse we were in and we did a lot of work around there pulling weeds and plants and trees. It was hard work but it was fun, it was really fun."

The Mr. and Miss University International Organization, sponsored by the Collegiate Association for the Research of Principles, coordinates another service project just for the winners. Khamasi journeyed to New Delhi, India with former Mr. University International Robert Yi-Cheng Hu of Taiwan, where the pair led a service project at a school for children with mental and physical disabilities.

"It was great for me because we helped the kids write, we helped build a library, we went to different religious places of worship and it was just good mingling with the people and talking to them and just helping them out," he said.

Pageant organizers hope the service component will encourage contestants to continue serving when they return home. Khamasi says her title has enabled her to meet with various leaders in Kenya on ways to help the country fight problems like famine.

Diego Costa of Brazil was crowned Mr. University International in 1997. He now lives in New York and heads the service project, which encourages young people to use their artistic talent to serve their communities. Nearly 10 years after winning the title, Costa says he remains a strong supporter of the program. He says Mr. and Miss University International represent how college students are helping to change the world.

"I believe that college is the place where people are generating new ideas, studying new possibilities, so that's why all the research comes from universities," he explained. "That's the place where ideas are flowing, new concepts are flowing. So if we really want to make a difference in the way we do things, actually the college campus and the students are the laboratory of new things."

He says he didn't go to the pageant with a competitive attitude, but to simply make new friends. He says his participation in the program has changed his life.

"When we go there, we have this experience that we can see we are all one, and it kind of sparks in you a desire to go beyond, to live for a greater good, to find new ways that you can use your life to really make a difference," he added. "That's what I learned. That's why I think it's important for the students to go there and change their life."

Former contestants say leaving their new international friends can be difficult, with the reality that they may never see each other again. However, through a message board on the organization's website, pageant organizers hope contestants can stay connected.