When 21-year-old physics major Sarah Brown decided to run for the illustrious title of Miss Jackson State University in 2012, she knew exactly what she was up against. She wasn’t a sorority member, which was the norm for the pageant’s applicants, and she certainly wasn’t a “pageant girl.”
“My campaign slogan was Crown Sarah Brown,’ and I went around door-to-door to meet people, especially freshmen, and ask for their vote,” she recalls. “I shook as many hands as I could find. I felt like I had to do it, just to prove that it could be done.”
All those freshman hands added up, and Sarah Brown got her crown. With her newfound fame, she felt a strong urge to reach out to girls who might not have the confidence to aim for the stars. Through that, she discovered a hidden passion for public service that would steer her away from a lucrative career in astrophysics. “They bought me a plane ticket to Belize to continue my study in physicsall that was left to do was sign the contract,” she says. “Two days before the trip, I told them I wasn’t going.”
In August, after a summer of soul-searching, Brown found herself pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at LSU. Under the guidance of longtime public administration professor Jim Richardson, she is continuing the youth outreach project she started during her reign as Miss JSU, devoting her energy to helping public school girls find their inner motivation.
Brown says that her own experience growing up in a single-parent home is what enables her to connect with the adolescents she works with. “I see them, and I know where they are,” she says. “I know how hard it is.”
Of course, Brown wasn’t always a Dean’s List student who made all the right decisions. According to her, in fact, she was a problem child. “I was the one skipping school, wanting to hang out with boys, all that,” she admits. “When I got to college, I didn’t even know how to study.”
Before majoring in physics at Jackson State, she studied meteorology, which sent her down a long and rocky road of remedial math. For anyone who claims an innate aversion to math, Brown’s dedication might come as a glimmer of hope: “My ACT score right out of high school was a 15, with a 14 in math,” she says with a wince. To make up for it, she often had to study for five or more hours a day in her first years at JSU. By the end of that time, she was tutoring other students in advanced mathematics.
“To get where I wanted to go, I had to learn it,” she says, “so I did.”
Despite a relatively novice hand, her passion for helping teens rise above their hang-ups seems to be enough to leave a lasting impression on many of them. Though she is currently only one semester into the public administration program, she’s already decided to complete an optional master’s degree project, focusing on young girls in public high schools. Professor Jim Richardson notes that while some of his students need ample time to find their niche, Brown seems to know where she needs to be and is driven to start immediately. “The [LSU public administration] program will enhance her skills and her view of how to help others,” says Richardson. “But she believesand I believe she is rightthat she can help now.”
Her Baton Rouge project currently focuses on building self-esteem in the young women enrolled at Career Academy High School, and Assistant Principal Mandy LaCerte couldn’t be happier about it. LaCerte cites low self-esteem as the most common hindrance in the school’s female students. “It’s really where I see them struggle the most,” notes LaCerte. “They have trouble seeing the amazing parts of themselves, and it can take an outside source to pull it out of them.”
In Baton Rouge, Brown has identified problems similar to those she discovered in Jackson public schools, including high HIV infection rates, teen pregnancy, parenting issues and low self-esteem. The latter two are the most critical, she says, because they tend to enable the rest. “Honestly, the self-esteem issue is on the side of the adults, too,” she adds. “If a parent has low self-esteem, their child is raised within that environment, and neither of them are aware that they can do better. It’s a cycle.”
LaCerte describes the first time she saw Brown in action as a wake-up call, both to herself and to the school’s stakeholders. “Seeing and hearing what the girls go throughwhen they opened up in that group setting, it was honestly hard to hear,” she recalls.
But LaCerte has already seen a difference in the girls after just a few months of Brown’s efforts. “I think what happened, when they opened up in front of their peers, is that they saw how similar they all were,” LaCerte explains. “I see more camaraderie between themI think girls who might have previously been seen as different’ are no longer viewed that way.”
With such tangible results after her first semester, it’s no mystery why Brown chose not to go to Belize last summer. To her, the often-unsolved problems of celestial physics pale in comparison to what she takes home from a day’s work at Career Academy.
As a role model for struggling youth, she understands the importance of having someone to look up to in adolescence. “My mom was never judgmental,” Brown says. “She was always on my side, even when everyone else might have thought I’d just gone down the wrong path. She didn’t hold me back from making my own mistakes; she let me make them.” With a laugh, she adds, “That’s how you learn.”