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Beauty pageant prize helps pay student winner's tuition

For sophomore Susan Rushing, the Miss America contest could be a runway paved with gold.

A year ago, all that stood between Ms. Rushing and her dream of becoming a surgeon was a skimpy $250,000 in tuition costs.

A month ago, she donned her swimsuit, wore a crown and sang "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Giacomo Puccini's Gianni Schicchi in front of a panel of judges and a crowd of 1,000 in her hometown of Frederick, MD.

Now, Ms. Rushing, 20, who is studying systems neuroscience, is Miss Frederick, with $2,500 in scholarship money already en route to MIT and enough community service commitments to keep her commuting between Cambridge and Frederick, a suburb of Washington, DC, every weekend. "I do my problem sets in airports, waiting rooms--anywhere," she said. "Besides, I don't think of this in beauty pageant terms. I think of it as scholarships."

As Miss Frederick, Ms. Rushing will compete in the Miss Maryland pageant from June 26-28. A soprano, she plans to sing "Cuando M'en Vo' Soletta per la Via," Musetta's waltz, from Puccini's La Boheme. If she rules in Maryland, viewers all over the world will see her in September in the Rorschach of American life, the Miss America pageant.

Ms. Rushing always knew she wanted a career in science. She never considered entering a beauty pageant as a way to help pay for college. But with college tuition for a younger sister and a younger brother looming, her dream of staying at MIT to become a "big-city surgeon" was threatened.

"I wanted to become a doctor who makes patients feel truly comfortable with the procedures they must face," Ms. Rushing said. Still, when a former high school teacher, himself a pageant director, suggested she compete with the scholarship dollars in mind, Ms. Rushing was dubious. "I wasn't thrilled about the swimsuit part," she said. "While they say it's for visual observation of muscle tone, I believe there are better ways to measure fitness."

Yet the dream still beckoned, and so did the life she'd found at MIT. She's active in MedLINKs and is a member of the Ballroom Dance Team and the Vegetarian Support Group. She lives among "sisters you can rely on" in her sorority house, Alpha Phi. As a Vocal Music Scholar, she sings at MIT events, including the national anthem at basketball games.

And then there's her full course load, which is bringing her ever closer to that medical degree and a career that reflects her values.

"It's a rigorous life and it's stressful," she admitted. "I would never have applied to MIT. My dad, an engineer, told me to go for it. So I did. And it's great."

Ms. Rushing, who grew up in Birmingham, AL, admits she's a long way from home. "People back there have heard of Harvard. They call it `the Vanderbilt of the North.' But MIT? Somebody once asked me, `Why do you want to go to college to learn how to fix refrigerators?'"

With her family's support, Ms. Rushing dug into medical work in Maryland before she went away to college. Her star rose quickly in a region where the competition for internships at places like the National Institutes of Health is fierce. Completing high school in three years, she spent her junior summer through her entire senior year as an intern at the National Cancer Institute studying lymphoma in AIDS patients and cancer cell initiation. She published two articles while working there.

Ms. Rushing, who began studying voice in eighth grade, has toured extensively in Europe and the United States. At 16, she was the youngest member of the Maryland Lyric Opera. Although she had an opportunity to attend the Juilliard School in New York, Ms. Rushing instead chose MIT and is active in the Vocal Music Scholars program. She is also a member of the MIT chamber choir. Along with four other Vocal Music Scholars, Ms. Rushing will give a recital on May 11 in Killian Hall.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 1997.

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