Pageants with a purpose

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Hundreds of fans packed Stratford Square Mall in suburban Bloomingdale this weekend for a chance to meet the next Miss Illinois, and the University of Chicago was well represented. Valerie Lynch, a third-year in the Law School, was one of 21 women competing for the 2006 Miss Illinois crown, a preliminary round of the Miss America competition.

“Everyone’s been extremely supportive and fascinated by all this,” Lynch said during the lunchtime autograph session before Saturday’s final event. “It’s been a nice outlet, especially being at the Law School.”

Lynch is no stranger to the pageant scene. Originally interested in pageantry as a “great way to win scholarships,” she was crowned Miss Orlando during her senior year at the University of Florida in 2003, and she earned Miss DuPage County honors last year. Lynch said she has won $35,000 in scholarships over the past four years (the Miss Illinois pageant carried a pooled $20,000 scholarship prize for the top five contestants).

Lynch emphasized the need to look beyond the competition’s glitz and glamour. At the Law School and as her pageant platform, she is an advocate for mental health. Lynch is part of the Mental Health Advocacy Project, a program in the Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, founded in 1957 to provide legal services to underserved populations on Chicago’s South Side. She has worked with Law School professors to enact legislation to keep new federal Medicaid dollars in the community mental-health system.

“We’re working to illustrate that Illinois has got an F-rating from the National Institute of Mental Health, and we need these funds to provide higher-quality services to people afflicted with these illnesses,” she said, adding that a close family member suffers from bipolar disorder. “The Mental Health Project was one of the reasons I chose the Law School.”

Although Lynch placed in the top ten finalists later that evening, her name was not called as Miss Illinois 2006, so it was back to the Washington, D.C., law firm Patton Boggs, where she will complete her work as a summer associate before returning to Hyde Park for autumn quarter.

During her autograph session, she reflected on the hectic schedule ahead. “What girl doesn’t like to be in the mall?” she joked. “It’s much better than the library, that’s for sure.”

Hassan S. Ali, ’07

Signature smile: Law student/tiara wearer Valerie Lynch signs autographs and shows her pearly whites for fans after the Miss Illinois pageant.

July 31, 2006