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New Jersey’s Miss Petite America knows what a blessing in disguise means. From the time she was 3 years old, Kristen Kowalski loved to dance and took lessons in all forms—ballet, tap, jazz, modern. So it was devastating when, at 16 years old, she was told by the doctor that a knee injury meant she would not dance again. “The doctor said that if I were to keep dancing I would not be able to walk,” says Kowalski, a junior at Caldwell University. As much as she loved dancing, she says, “Walking is much more important.”

Soon after she stopped dancing, another door opened for her. It was a call in the mail for free photos from the National American Miss organization. “I begged my mother to let me have the photos taken.” And so the competitions began. At 17, Kowalski won her first pageant. “It was ridiculous,” she says of her “poofy dress.”

The Pompton Plains resident worked hard and continued to win, and this past August she proudly represented New Jersey when she took the national title of Miss Petite America 2015. She also won the Best Interview and Best Evening Dress prizes.

Kowalski will be heading to the World Pageant in 2016 to represent the United States and is excited about attending events to support the organization’s platform charities for breast cancer awareness and wounded warriors. And she’s doing all this while carrying a heavy load at school—double majoring in education and psychology with certification programs in middle school math and special education. Her studies are her highest priority. “My mom is a teacher and my dad is a psychologist, and they always stressed academics,” says Kowalski. “I have to maintain the dean’s list GPA. I love books and love to read.”

When she was a student at DePaul High School in Wayne and was on her college search, her father urged to look at Caldwell. “As soon as I came I knew it was for me.”

Kowalski recognizes the responsibility she has in carrying the Miss Petite America crown. Young girls need positive role models, she says. And there are sacrifices. She says she cannot take photos with her friends, knowing that pictures could end up anywhere on social media.

This year Kowalski became a Caldwell University orientation leader. “I knew I wanted to be an orientation leader because everyone was so helpful to me when I went to freshman orientation.” The caring atmosphere and student services are what make Caldwell University special to her. “There really isn’t anything Caldwell doesn’t have,” she says.

She takes the platform seriously and is striving to use it to help others, but her sights are also set on her career goal—to become an elementary school teacher, possibly working in preschool and special education. “One of the aspects I love the most about the Education Department at Caldwell University is the field placement (work),” she says. She credits her mother, a teacher, with inspiring her to pursue the career. “I cannot wait to have a classroom of my own.” And the “petite” title certainly works in that venue. “I love the younger children because they are not taller than me yet.”