If Haley Heiselt hadn’t been so shy, she might not be competing this Saturday for the title of Miss California USA.
The first-year mechanical engineering major and aspiring naval nuclear engineer, who is more comfortable with quantum physics than the catwalk, needed some prodding from her mother last summer to fill out an online pageant application, the first step in a process that led to her becoming Miss Riverside County.
“I’ve been super painfully shy for a long time,” she says. “In high school, it kept me from making many friends. … I wanted the chance to overcome that fear. Just having the experience [of entering the pageant] is what motivated me. It was about someone handing me a microphone and saying, ‘Speak. Tell me what you think.’”
Heiselt speaks quickly but comfortably. Hers is the voice of someone whose mind is racing, weighing and calculating. It’s the voice of a self-confessed and wholly confident nerd who has been drawn to engineering since she was a little girl, when she and her sister designed saddles and bridles for their toy horses because the ones out of the box weren’t realistic.
“I would always ask how things worked. Why does it do that?”
Her grandfather, a lifelong tinkerer, stoked her passion for finding answers. Her participation in the JPL Invention Challenge in sixth grade cemented her commitment to math and science. And as a freshman at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore, she fell in love with quantum physics.
“I thought it was so cool, but I realized I couldn’t make a living off of quantum physics unless I wanted to be a teacher, so I started looking into things that used it.”
Nuclear engineering and a naval career seemed a logical pursuit, in part because “the military has been a huge part of my family.” One of Heiselt’s grandfathers was an officer on a nuclear submarine, the other is a Vietnam veteran, and her father spent 21 years in the Marines.
Her father, who served as a police officer in Pomona, “always talked about this great place, Cal Poly Pomona, but I never thought about it much. Then I started looking at colleges, at what was realistic financially and what was close by. It has a great engineering program, so it just seemed like a really good fit.”
She credits the Maximizing Engineering Potential program and its director, Milton Randle, for easing her transition from high school to life at the university, where she excelled in the first quarter despite being on her own and “having to figure out how to pay bills and buy groceries – the shock of having to grow up, so to speak.”
She joined the Society of Women Engineers, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society. This pageant contestant, a direct descendent of Sitting Bull, knows all too well that appearances are only skin deep.
“People look at me and say, ‘Oh, she’s a blond-haired and blue-eyed white girl,’ but just because I look that way does not mean that’s what I am or what I came from. … It’s such a weird thing. I’m the only blond-and-blue person in my family. If you looked at them and then me, you might think, ‘Are you related to them?’”
One of Heiselt’s grandmothers speaks Spanish as her native tongue. The other grew up in poverty on a reservation in Montana. Heiselt is proud of her heritage and embraces the opportunity to be a role model for young Latinos, Native Americans and women who are thinking about engineering as a career.
“There are so many negative things that people look up to in society that it would be nice to look at someone and say, ‘She is who she is, and if she can do it, I can do it too.’ That’s how I’ve always felt when I’ve looked at someone’s accomplishments.”
The weeks leading up to the Miss California USA pageant have been busy: orientation, meetings with the event directors, swimsuit and gown fittings, even a lesson in walking and posture. Still, Heiselt, who says she is “more of a go-play-with-the-horses-in-mud person,” is looking forward to Saturday.
“I’m excited. I know a lot of girls I’ve spoken to are very stressed out about it. They’re worried about losing weight and working out. I’m just going to go to school and show up [at the pageant] on the weekend and we’ll see how it goes.”
She knows that a lot of people will be rooting her on.
“I have such a diverse group of people who support me: the people here in engineering, the people at the horse stable where I ride, people I went to high school with, and I think I have the entire town of Scappoose, Oregon [population 6,600, where her grandparents live] saying ‘You go! We’re going to watch you!’”
And if she doesn’t win?
“I already got the benefit of what I intended to get, which was to gain confidence and be able to speak to people. That was the whole point of doing this, so no matter what happens, I will walk away with something, whether or not it’s the crown.”
(Photo: Haley Heiselt, a freshman mechanical engineering major from Lake Elsinore, will compete in the Miss California USA competition.)