This week, 51 amazing women gathered in Baton Rouge to compete for the Miss USA Crown. These are incredibly inspiring and accomplished women who are attending some of our nation’s best universities and pursuing careers in medicine, law, journalism and countless other professions. They have been working hard to prepare for Sunday’s competition, only to be caught in the crossfire of a heated political debate.

The Miss Universe Organization is a small, stand-alone company, run primarily by women and dedicated to providing the tools for women to be confident and the best they can be. Miss Universe is not about Donald Trump or NBC. It is about the 51 contestants, all of whom have made countless sacrifices to be here, and, unfortunately, have become victims of events far beyond their control.

We are sad that these 51 women have lost significant opportunities to share their inspiring stories, but we are proud that they faced the adversity head on and worked to help “save the sash.” These women deserve the opportunity to compete, and their families, who have given their unfailing support along the way, deserve the chance to watch and celebrate their achievements. Each contestant understands that the Miss USA event is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will forever shape the course of their lives, and these women are no strangers to working hard to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals.

Over 20 percent are immigrants or are from immigrant families. Miss Massachusetts USA, Polikseni Manxhari, came to the United States from Albania when she was 5 years old. She recently graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in psychology and makes it her mission to volunteer at a suicide prevention hotline after a friend’s tragic death. Miss California USA, Natasha Martinez, is the daughter of Nicaraguan and Mexican parents and a Latino-American TV host working at KDOC-TV in Southern California. Miss Connecticut USA, Ashley Golebiewski, whose family escaped Communist Poland, is pursuing a degree in finance and is an advocate for an international anti-bullying organization. Miss Rhode Island USA, Anea Garcia, who for an extended period secretly lived out of a car with her grandmother, while she attended high school,, has earned a full college scholarship and plans to pursue a career in law so she can be an advocate for women and the homeless. Even the hometown favorite, Miss Louisiana USA, Candice Bennatt, credits the pageant system with helping her overcome an abusive relationship which put her in the hospital with a broken jaw and ruptured eardrum. She is now a student at Loyola University College of Law and advocates for domestic abuse victims in the state legislature.

This year’s contestants are all incredibly smart and talented and they all have stories to tell. Fourteen contestants are studying or working in the medical field. Ten are working or studying in the legal or political fields, including Miss Virginia USA, Laura Puleo, who graduated cum laude from Duke University and is in her final semester of law school at Washington & Lee University. Miss District of Columbia USA, Lizzy Olsen, is the Majority Director of Operations for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Do these women and others deserve the opportunity to compete? Of course they do. That is why we continue to work tirelessly to “save the sash,” giving these accomplished contestants the platform they deserve, and empowering them and other women around the globe. I hope you will join us and tune in Sunday to watch the MISS USA Pageant on REELZ Channel or streamed live on

Paula M. Shugart, President, Miss Universe Organization