By Patricia Kaowthumrung

Stephanie Vi Nghiem became the 2012 Miss Asian American Colorado on June 26, 2012 after scoring highest in the Miss AACO Leadership Program. Scoring included service projects, program participation, interviews, talent performances, and an on-stage Q&A.

Stephanie Vi Nghiem left the Miss Asian American Colorado (AACO) fifth annual finale show June 16 with a crown she describes as bigger than her head, piles of dresses and more children’s toys than she could carry. Although she was ecstatic about the crown, Nghiem was equally excited about the success of her service project.

The event was held at University of Denver Sturm Hall’s Davis Auditorium, where seven judges decided that Nghiem scored the highest out of 14 young ladies. Candidates are judged in areas such as program involvement, leadership skills and strengths, service project completion, preliminary interviews with judges, introduction in cultural attire, talent performance and on-stage service questions.

Dr. Ranee Shenoi, who has judged the program every year since its induction, said she loves returning to participate in the program because it is about embracing cultures, and how women empower one another and the community.

“These leadership programs in our community are really our building blocks, she said. “Everyone is a winner.”

There is no doubt that Nghiem will fulfill Miss AACO’s tradition of exemplary service to the community.  Nghiem’s service project was to organize a toy drive to collect toys and necessities for kids at children’s hospital and decided to collect toys during the finale show, even though she had already completed her project for the program.

In addition to receiving a $1000 scholarship, Ngheim will satisfy her duties at Miss AACO 2012 by furthering her service project this next year and organizing bi-monthly service projects to reunite past Miss AACO candidates. The 20-year-old University of Colorado at Denver student developed a reputation as a passionate Renaissance woman long before she earned her new title.

Christina Pham, who earned the title of first runner-up in the 2010 program and served as one of this year’s co-chairs, said that the girls that participate seem to have a little something extra to offer every year.  She is also close with Nghiem and her family, and was not surprised to see her excel in the program.

“I grew up with her family and was able to watch her grow into the strong leader she is today,” Pham said. “She puts her whole heart and effort in everything she does.”

Nghiem’s efforts and passions are diverse. The Vietnamese-Chinese American worked three jobs while taking a full 18-credit load at UC-Denver during her participation in the program, but never seemed to lack enthusiasm.

“Stephanie was a joy to be around,” said Sally Peang, the program’s second runner-up who earned the title of Miss Impact. “Just talking to her could bring you out of a bad day.”

When she’s not working a candy store, nights as a hostess at The Keg Steakhouse, or as a supervisor for a market research firm, Nghiem likes to ride her motorcycle, and stay active by working out and playing on The Keg’s softball team.

She also has played the piano for more than 15 years and is a singer and song-writer. Nghiem likes to write her own covers of pop songs; her talent in the Miss AACO program was a Vietnamese fan dance combined with a piano solo she had written with Vietnamese lyrics.

“Being an Asian American really affects who I am today, “she said. “Miss AACO gave me a platform to spread my culture to others.”

Nghiem’s has an intensive three-part service project. She plans to develop a music program for kids affected by cancer, plan a field day for their families and organize a retreat for children’s siblings. Nghiem plans to begin fundraising and continue partnering with the program There with Care.

The music program will involve getting children to pick up an instrument of choice and learn how to play. Nghiem hopes to get volunteer teachers and even incorporate dance into the program. A recital will take place at the end of the year to highlight the children’s new talents.

Volunteering for the program and meeting a 10-year-old girl named Rose is what inspired Nghiem’s service project. After beating leukemia, Rose was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was given three weeks to live.

“The way she acted was so strong that it inspired me. Watching Rose’s family gave me insight to what needs to be done to help other families,” she said.

Nghiem spent as much time with Rose as possible; she painted her nails daily and took her to places she had never been before she passed away in January. Nghiem dedicated her talent performance to Rose’s mom, who even tailored the gown she wore in the show.

Nghiem’s heroes are Rose and her grandmother. Although they are very different ages, they are both very strong women that have been through so much, she said. It is not hard to see that Nghiem exhibits the qualities of a hero herself.

“Stephanie is the kind of girl that can do everything,” said Juliet Jung, who won first runner-up in the program with the title Miss Unity. “She’s superwoman.”

Joie Ha, a candidate in Miss AACO 2011 who returned to participate in this year’s program as Nghiem’s Big Sister, called her “fiercely independent and motivated.”

“She is very charismatic and personable,” Ha said. “She just gets things done.”

Often sleep deprived, Nghiem calls her desire to finish every endeavor she pursues a gift and a burden.

“My weakness is that I abuse my body when I am trying to do all of these things,” she said.

Nghiem calls participating in Miss AACO “life changing.” One of her life goals is to change the lives of others while her career goal is to work in IT management; she is currently pursuing degrees in Internet technology and economics. This summer Nghiem looks forward to traveling to a wedding and family reunion and getting her service project off the ground. She also plans to throw a fundraiser at a Pachanga, a line dancing workout class soon.

Her advice to others is: “Always push yourself as far as you can. You might surprise yourself at all you can accomplish.”

The Miss Asian American Colorado Leadership Program celebrated its fifth anniversary that culminated in a finale show with more than 450 people in attendance. The second annual Mr. AACO segment was a hit, as Gary Putra was crowned this year’s winner. For more information about the program, please visit www.missaaco.com. For photos of the 2012 Finale Show, please see the Facebook album.