DAVENPORT — What a difference four years have made for Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw.
The 21-year-old Rock Island native, who faced depression and suicidal thoughts at age 17, is now the new Miss Iowa, championing the cause of hope and suicide awareness for those battling similar demons.
“I recognize not everybody is as lucky to have as good a support system,” Hughes-Shaw — who won the crown Saturday at the Adler Theatre — said Monday. Twenty-two contestants competed in this year’s Miss Iowa Scholarship Program. “What I try to do is make that negative situation a positive one, help people going through the same thing.”
In 2016, the year after graduating from Rock Island High School, she started an organization called “How About H.O.P.E.? (Helping Others and Providing Encouragement),” with financial help from Rock Island-based Royal Neighbors. It focuses on this question: Why do we still have this stigma surrounding mental illness?
“Why do we not share our stories and help others?” Hughes-Shaw asks on her website, mikhaylahughesshaw.com. “What does it mean to you to have HOPE? This campaign keeps me going, and I cannot wait to see where this journey takes me.”
In high school, she dealt with the fact her father went to prison and her mom fell seriously ill, and Hughes-Shaw had to take on much more responsibility. “That was a really tough time,” she said. “At the same time, people in high school are not always the nicest. I lost the love for myself I had at one time. It was big combination of a lot of things.”
Hughes-Shaw earned the pageant titles of Miss Wild Rose and Miss Clinton County in 2017, and she took part in last year’s Miss Iowa contest. “People see a crown and think your life has always been perfect, but it’s not the case,” she said, noting her experience is “a testament that you can overcome anything.”
One lifeline from high school was her friendship with Jasmine Babers, who founded the award-winning LOVE Girls magazine, which publishes around the country, and Hughes-Shaw has worked as senior assistant editor since 2014. LOVE stands for “lead, overcome, value and empower,” and the magazine encourages young women to tell their stories.
Babers and Hughes-Shaw were guests on an episode of the national TV program “Harry,” hosted by Harry Connick Jr., which aired May 4, 2017.
Hughes-Shaw has completed three years at the University of Iowa, pursuing a bachelor’s of arts degree in journalism and mass communication, with a certificate in critical cultural competence. She hopes to work one day as a news anchor and a TV talk-show host.
She is taking a year off school to fulfill Miss Iowa responsibilities, with plans to graduate in 2020, with the help of $10,500 in her scholarship award.
Hughes-Shaw will compete to become the next Miss America on Sept. 9 in Atlantic City. The last Miss Iowa from the Quad-Cities was 24-year-old Pauli Mayfield, of Davenport, who earned the crown in 2010.
“I definitely was just in shock, in terms of the scholarship,” Hughes-Shaw said of winning, due in part to her performing violin, which she’s played 10 years. “To graduate with my degree debt-free, how awesome is that? I’m just really, really thankful.
“I’m still getting used to everything; this time will be very busy,” she said. “It will be a good busy, visiting different events throughout the state, doing a lot of mock interviews, being able to play my violin on the Miss America stage.”
The Miss America Organization recently decided to eliminate the swimsuit portion from its annual competition, which Hughes-Shaw said is “bittersweet.”
“We work endlessly to make sure we’re in the best mental and physical health,” she said. “I usually dreaded the swimsuit portion. But I’m really proud of evaluating women on their service, and not on their modeling. You shouldn’t be measured by external beauty.”
Hughes-Shaw founded an “Out of the Darkness Walk” at the University of Iowa this April to aid the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and she wants to speak on the issue to all ages.
To learn more about the Miss Iowa Scholarship Program, visit missiowa.com.