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Mikayla Holmgren ’18 Makes History

Mikayla Holmgren ’18 Makes History

Mikayla Holmgren ’18 received the Spirit of Miss USA award during the Miss Minnesota USA pageant.

“Thankful I will be Awareness on the stage tonight.”

That’s the text Sandi Holmgren ’81 received from her daughter Mikayla ’18 just before the Miss Minnesota USA pageant began in late November.

Mikayla took home the Spirit of Miss USA and Director’s awards that night and garnered national media attention for being the first known woman with Down syndrome to compete in a pageant at that level. But for Mikayla—and her parents, friends, and countless supporters—it wasn’t about the fame. Just like going to college, competing on dance teams, and performing in Bethel’s Festival of Christmas choir, the pageant was another way Holmgren could prove to herself and the world that people with disabilities like Down syndrome can take on just as many challenges as others. And in an act of “Awareness” personified, they can inspire and delight countless people along the way.

“Mikayla is such an encourager—she’s always the one sending happy texts, notes, and pictures to others who need it,” says Director of the Bethel University Inclusive Learning and Development (BUILD) program Dawn Allen as she hands Holmgren a cup of hot coffee. “I’m just being myself!” Holmgren responds with a giggle, tucking her feet up on her chair and settling in for our conversation. “This is a big story right now. I feel so, so happy—and I have so much joy.”

Assistant BUILD Director Janelle Kelly, who sees Holmgren daily and has watched her prepare and compete in the pageant, says Holmgren has taken the whole thing in stride. “The beautiful thing about Mikayla is how little the experience changed her commitment to the things she values: her classes, her classmates, her goals, and most of all, her relationship with Christ,” Kelly says. “Through it all, she has remained the steadfast, kind, optimistic, sweet-spirited Mikayla that we have always known.”

Kelly says one of her personal goals for BUILD—which launched in 2015 and is one of just a few programs like it in the nation—is to open the hearts and minds of other Bethel students and community members, and help them learn to embrace people with intellectual disabilities. “I fervently hope that our culture is changing and expanding its view of beauty,” she says. “Mikayla, her family, the Bethel community, and the Down syndrome community already knew that she is beautiful. It gives me hope for the future that the pageant community is catching on and beginning to recognize her beauty.”

Anna Korger ’20, a psychology major, competed alongside Holmgren in the Miss Minnesota USA pageant, advancing to the top 15. She says that Holmgren’s presence at the pageant had a profound impact on her. “To be honest, whenever someone asks me what it was like to get to know Mikayla, I have a hard time knowing where to even begin,” says Korger, who trained alongside and mentored Holmgren. “You know that person in your life you admire because they are unapologetically themselves, and they're just a light to everyone they meet? That's Mikayla to me…she made history, but in my opinion, her biggest achievement is having the powerful ability to change the world through being herself.”

Holmgren’s story has appeared on BuzzFeed, the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, KARE 11, Huffington Post, WCCO, Today Show Online, CBS, Fox News, St. Croix Valley Magazine, and New York Post so far. She has already received invitations to compete in other pageants and to model in New York. She may be appearing on a well-known national talk show in the coming weeks, and a fifth-grader named Jack from Kent, Ohio, contacted Holmgren to help with a research project he’s doing. The calls and interviews have been almost nonstop in the past few weeks, but this time of year, Holmgren has another thing on her mind: finals. And in Holmgren’s signature style, she’s not letting the attention faze her. She’s already turned her attention to future goals. She’s considering writing a book and, long term, wants to open an art and dance studio so she can share her creativity and drive with others who have special needs.

“It has been so fun watching her grow and become more confident in who she is,” Sandi says. She and her husband, Craig, often talk about their college experience at home. When Mikayla was young, she dreamt about attending Bethel someday, too—long before the BUILD program existed. “It was all she knew! Who knew it would become a reality? I believe that would be God!” Sandi says. “And the fact that she was embraced by many of the pageant girls thrilled our hearts. To watch her, in mock interviews, make the judges laugh and fall in love with her? As she started the pageant weekend, we had so many young ladies approach her and us, excited to get to know her. One young lady said it was Mikayla’s story that encouraged her to participate in the pageant. When we watch her interact with others, we are so glad she did it. Everyone is so proud of her and how she advocates for herself and how she wants to be a spokesperson for those like her.” 

“I just want to tell other girls with Down syndrome that they can go to college. They can live independently, and dream big just like anyone else,” Holmgren says. “Believe in yourself—God does!”