By: Ahmad Graves-El
CUMBERLAND COUNTY – The 2019 Miss New Jersey Pageant will soon be upon us, and for the highly intellectual, reigning Miss Cumberland County, whether she wins or loses is irrelevant.
Alyssa Rodriguez, a 20-year-old Vineland native, is the latest in a long line of impressive young women to represent Cumberland County in the annual state pageant that leads to the Miss America stage.
The civic-minded Latina has an admirable list of goals she hopes to achieve while engaged in this ultra-competitive pageant as well as in her role as an ambassador for the area in which she was born and raised.
One of her objectives is to inspire other young girls who look and sound like her to be confident in themselves and to make sure they have a voice in any arena.
“I know that when I step foot on that stage, I’m going to represent my town, my county, my family, my island, and everyone with dignity and pride and honor,” Rodriguez says. “I feel like that’s what I was put here for.”
Rodriguez understands that she is in a unique position to pave a clearer pathway for others just like her—including family members—to follow.
“I want to be a role model for my little step-sister who’s getting into pageants now. She’s Latina,” Rodriguez says. “I want her to look up to me and be like, well, my big sister did it, so can I. Or other Latina girls that I see when I go to the Boys and Girls Club or the Salvation Army or any of the schools I visit and just showing them I’m here, I’m just like them.
“I look just like these other Latina girls that are struggling with their identity where they have pale skin and dark hair, but they’re Puerto Rican or they’re Cuban. I need to be that role model for them because I didn’t really have that outside of my family. There was no Latina girl telling me ‘You can be Miss New Jersey.’ ”
Compared to many other contestants, Rodriguez, who also won the Miss Vineland pageant in 2016, is fairly new to the pageant scene.
“I’ve only done a handful of pageants,” Rodriguez reveals. “I have been on and off since 8th or 9th grade. I can literally count them on my hand.”
“We entered a pageant when she was in 9th grade,” says Bernice Cordero Hampton, Rodriguez’s mother. “We were [like] fish out of water and did not know anything about pageants.”
That pageant took place in 2015 and was put on by the America’s National Teenager Scholarship Organization.
“My mom mainly wanted me to work on my communication skills [and] my ability to articulate my thoughts and performing on stage in front of an audience,” says Rodriguez, explaining the impetus behind Cordero Hampton’s decision to allow her to participate in the event.
Although she didn’t win the contest, Rodriguez still had a successful showing and ended up getting first runner-up to Miss Puerto Rico.
“I was really excited,” Rodriguez says. “I won first place in talent, which was awesome because I’d been working on my talent for a while. That’s my main thing. If anything goes well in a pageant, I want it to be my talent.”
Rodriguez is a virtual virtuoso on the keys and that remarkable skill has helped catapult her to the top of a couple of pageants.
“I’ve been playing piano for the past 11, 12 years,” says Rodriguez. “I’m more classically trained, but I’ve been recently getting into some modern songs and just trying to stay in touch with today’s generation.”
Playing today’s music on the piano would be an intriguing challenge for Rodriguez to take on, especially with the continual rise of Trap music proliferating the radio waves.
“I’m definitely not going to play Lil Uzi on the piano,” she says with a laugh. “[Then again], that might be pretty cool!”
As the Miss Cumberland County title holder, Rodriguez has selected a noteworthy platform in the hopes of influencing a plethora of people in a positive way.
“I have an organization called Social Smarties,” says Rodriguez. “I founded it when I was Miss Vineland in 2016. It aims to educate anyone on the risks and dangers of social media.”
As a frequent user of social media, Rodriguez understands the impact it has on millions of people and through her Social Smarties organization has a plan to help guide those people in the appropriate ways to use the global medium.
“My three main things that I base if off of are the Three P’s—Positivity, Productivity, and Privacy,” Rodriguez says. “[Social media] is definitely challenging to maneuver and navigate through [especially] for the younger generation. And I think that with the proper education [it will] help kids understand that their words do have consequences.”
One of the reasons why Rodriguez created Social Smarties is because she, like countless other people, was subjected to an inordinate amount of online bullying.
“I founded it because I was harassed on social media my junior and senior year and I realized how bad it made me feel. I definitely went through these experiences and I wouldn’t have wished them upon anyone,” she says.
Rodriguez tells the story of a former friend who was angry with her and posted some [vitriolic commentary] online. “She got mad at me and just started going around saying things, and on Snapchat she was burning old memorabilia from I guess her past friendships that she also burned bridges too, no pun intended. And the last post—it was a burning fire and it had my photo in it and it said, ‘That last b-word burned the most because she is the devil.’
“And that is ingrained in my brain forever. I have the image in my mind right now. And that was someone who I thought was my friend. Maybe if this person knew that their actions had consequences and their actions and words online really affected me this way, they wouldn’t have done it,” she continues. “Or maybe they still would have. But me as a Social Smartie, I have to understand to just ignore that and maintain my positivity. I’m not going to engage in this negativity and put myself on blast trying to put you on blast because that’s not going to do us justice.
“Kindness is contagious. Positivity is contagious. And it’s a domino effect. If we’re not kind to one another, then what’s really our purpose here?”
What began as a harrowing ordeal for Rodriguez has turned into a powerful program that has the chance to become a widely influential movement and it appears as if Rodriguez holds no animosity toward her former friend. “Thanks to that girl, everyone seems to be really interested in my platform and I am grateful for that.”
Besides being a Social Smartie, the Miss Cumberland County titleholder is also an “Educational Smartie.” Rodriguez is majoring in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) and has a minor in political science at the heralded The George Washington University, in Washington, DC.
“I am [also] planning on applying for a combined masters/bachelor’s program come Spring semester of my junior year, which would give me my masters in five years,” Rodriguez reveals. “And then I would have my major in WGSS, minor in political science, and a concentration in public policy. So, as long as I keep up my GPA for my major (which currently stands at 3.7), I’ll get right in and I’ll have my masters.”
Rodriguez has also had the awesome opportunity of interning for former State Senator and current U.S. Congressman, Jeff Van Drew, for the past four years and has thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“He is a wonderful guy and he is a great ambassador for South Jersey, in my opinion,” says Rodriguez. “Specifically, interning for him on Capitol Hill has probably been my [most] favorite experience in my entire life. It is such a different atmosphere than interning at the district level. I had my own badge, so that was super official. I was qualified to give Capitol [Hill] tours. I had access to the Capitol whenever I wanted—until six. It was an experience like no other. Literally living in the heart of the country on top of working in the hub of it all, of politics—it’s so crazy to be behind the scenes of it all.
“[Also], I live about four or five blocks from the White House. Isn’t that crazy? The [presidential] motorcade wakes me up in the morning, sometimes. And I’m like ‘can you calm it down a little bit right now, Donald? We’re trying to sleep,’ ” she says with a smile.
Rodriguez has gained a wealth of knowledge from and has a ton of respect for Van Drew and becomes ebullient when talking about him.
“Watching him speak on C-Span while I’m working that’s also inspiring,” says Rodriguez, who says her goal is to be a Civil Rights attorney for the ACLU. “Seeing a man who was once a dentist down by the shore who’s now representing our district in Congress [is amazing.] I was able to learn so many new things and so many new terms and different ways of talking to people and it really helped shape my communication skills.”
The congressman speaks highly of Rodriguez, as well. “Alyssa is a joy to be around,” Van Drew says. “Her enthusiasm to help out around the office and to work on important issues is what makes us bring her back time and time again. I know her goal is to continue on to work in public policy so that she can make a difference in the world. I look forward to seeing what she accomplishes.
“Her number one goal has always been to help people first and foremost,” he continues. “She has a heart of gold.”
During our conversation, Rodriguez sort of experiences an epiphany when thinking about her time on Capitol Hill. “I think back about it now, everyone in DC is called a Hilltern. But then I put in into perspective—I work in the House of Representatives. It’s amazing.”
Rodriguez then reveals a special moment that occurred for her while she was there. “I actually met Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez! That was amazing,” Rodriguez says. “The Chief of Staff, Allison Murphy, she’s so sweet. She’s the one who scheduled my meeting with [Ocasio-Cortez]. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without interning with [Van Drew]. I definitely wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. I met my idol this year! We were smiling, we were laughing. She was so cool.
“And I told her, ‘Just seeing you as a Latina, in this position, it’s amazing for me to see.’ You would not think she was this incredibly powerful, strong, fierce woman. And she was so gentle. It just felt very natural.
“Meeting AOC fueled my fire to be the best public servant I can be,” Rodriguez says when asked what she learned from meeting her idol. “I told her that ‘you inspire me to want to be the voice of the people and I don’t ever think I can thank you enough for that.’ And she taught me that a Latina with pale skin and dark hair can do whatever she wants, and her place is anywhere she wants. Her place can be right on the Miss America stage or it could be in the House [of Representatives].”
In the interim, the place Rodriguez will be on June 9 is at Eastlyn Golf Course and The Greenview Inn in Vineland, as the Cumberland County Board of Directors is hosting Alyssa’s Miss New Jersey Send-Off Brunch.
“The Send-Off is … a tradition for [the] pageant’s contestants so the community can send well wishes,” says Cordero Hampton, who was an SNJ Today 2018 Hometown Hero. ”We are [also] raising funds … [which will go] toward the Children’s Miracle Network and some expenses for the week-long festivities.”
Then it’s off to Atlantic City for a week where Rodriguez will go up against 27 other contestants at the Superstar Theater inside the Resorts Casino Hotel, as they vie to be crowned 2019 Miss New Jersey. The winner will be announced on Saturday, June 15.
“I’m all sorts of excited and nervous and stressed wrapped up into one pretty dress,” says Rodriguez.
As the competition week comes near, Cordero Hampton gushes while reflecting on the growth of her daughter and the many achievements she has accumulated during her short time on Earth.
“I am most proud of her courage,” says Cordero Hampton. “I couldn’t imagine doing what she has already accomplished at her age. She is an inspiration by following her own path not knowing what is behind those doors. I am proud of her integrity, [her committment] to her friends, her passion for being a public servant to our community, and being true to her culture.”
For Rodriguez, whether she wins or “loses” is irrelevant. “I know that whatever this universe has planned for me, that’s what’s going to happen. And I’ll be fine with either outcome,” Rodriguez says. “I am a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. And as cheesy … as it sounds, it’s totally true. I’m going to get up on that stage and [hopefully] I’m going to inspire someone. I just want to get up there and do my best and give my all.
“My goal is to bring honor to our county and put us on the map. And maybe give the girls a little run for their money.”
For more information about Social Smarties, visit socialsmarties-org.