The stage of Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen was a memorable one for Collins McMurray in March. She made it to the top ten and then listened as they listed off the third runner-up, second runner-up, first runner-up. But her name still wasn’t called. Then, the girl standing next to her whispered, “Collins, you just won.” And to her surprise, she did.

With that the Vestavia Hills High School senior became Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen. She’d go on to be named the third runner-up at Miss America’s Outstanding Teen in July and hear her name called for the overall highest GPA award at the national competition. She’s even getting full tuition to pursue her degree at Auburn. And, yes, this has all been her first experience with pageants.

Although she’d been singing and acting for most of her life, Collins never thought this kind of competition was for her. “A lot of people assume that pageants are based on looks and other superficial things,” she says. “Girls are usually more cutthroat in competition.” But unlike her assumptions, she was always greeted with kindness when she entered this new world. From the moment she walked into  a room filled with pageant pros to when she won the Alabama competition, she felt like another friend the other girls had known for years.

Even though she hadn’t grown up with the glitz of pageant life, Collins seems to take on the Miss Alabama responsibilities pretty seamlessly. “She fits all the criteria. And talent is a big part of it, so people would get to hear her sing,” her mom Melissa says. Not surprisingly, she won overall talent for singing at the state level. Collins has always craved that creative outlet. She sang and danced before she could ever talk, and she’s taken voice lessons from her coach Amy Murphy since she was 7 years old. “I can’t imagine not going to sing in the middle of my day. It’s a stress-reliever and a good way to escape,” she says.

Singing breaks up her school day and turns on a different kind of thinking and learning. Her love for the fine arts stretches much further too, from playing Annie in her school’s version of Annie in sixth grade to the Red Mountain Theater Company productions, and to dancing dance as a Rockette in the VHHS band. “People need to be more informed about the benefits of arts in education. Even just one class helps with mental health, developmentally, socially and academically,” she says. She quickly recalls how the theatre program at her middle school got cut after her sixth grade year, and although it is back in place now, Collins has learned how many schools don’t have supported fine arts like Vestavia has provided for her.

With her Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen responsibilities, she’s traveled around the state, equipped with national statistics and her own talent, to learn more about other schools with fewer fine arts opportunities and how she can work to make a change. Fine arts education is quite the fitting platform for her since she can speak from her own experience.

Collins knows she learns better, even in her core classes, through the incorporation of creative thinking. “I realized the lack of arts in school systems, and that really hurt me. I’m more creative-minded,” she says. Her high school choir teacher Megan Rudolph agrees that the fine arts benefit students’ education and their own personal harmony. “I have seen kids begin to soar in our classroom and then soar in every facet of their lives,” Megan says. “Singing is the one thing that engages the entire brain.”

Megan also speaks to how Collins possesses the drive to stand behind her platform too. “She is extremely confident, yet extremely sensitive towards others,” she says. “She is a natural born leader and has instincts that are beyond her years.” But you wouldn’t necessarily know it when you meet her. “She’s humble, but goal-oriented,” Melissa says. “You would not know her achievements from her, so you have to learn about them some other way. She’s a very discerning and loving person.”

Also as a part of Miss America’s Outstanding Teen, Collins has worked with Children’s Miracle Network. “It’s definitely strengthened my love for service,” she says. She’s visited Children’s of Alabama downtown, and she’s been raising money through her jewelry business CDesigns for the kids she meets in these interactions. Another creative outlet for her, Collins started making chokers and earrings for herself, working beads and charms into trendy styles because she didn’t want to pay for expensive pieces. Then, other Vestavia students became interested, and Collins now donates a portion of the profit to Children’s Miracle Network. “It was something I really enjoyed, and now it allows people to give back too,” she says.

Miss America’s Outstanding Teen is about more than service and talent too. Collins not just wearing a long dress— she’s planning, studying and brainstorming to figure out how to address the problems she sees in the world. “I had to study a range of things, anywhere from ‘If you could go to dinner with any three people, who would it be?’ to ‘What’s your opinion on abortion and same-sex marriage?’” Collins says.

There’s even an academic score factored into the competition that rewards hard-working students, judged by professors who never even see the contestants. Collins excelled in the academic category as well as the talent, both parts of her life that she pours energy into. “They’re not looking for a certain kind of girl,” she says. “Yes, I put on a gown and makeup and I curl my hair, but that’s just because it makes me feel confident. You’re not scored on the way you look or the way your hair is done. It’s about how you walk in the gown, the way you grace the stage, and how you answer your on-stage questions.”

Melissa was also surprised to find out that the Miss America’s Outstanding Teen pageants and preliminaries are put on by volunteers. “It’s a lot of time, but they invest in these girls and want them to do well and have bright futures,” she says. With the scholarships she’s received through the program, Collins plans to study chemical engineering with a pre-med concentration to pave the way for medical school. “I don’t think one girl walks away with nothing. Everyone gets some form of scholarship,” Melissa says.

Above all, the Outstanding Teen competitions have simply given Collins the role to explore different ways she can serve others and challenge her to find solutions to problems she sees, all things she has always done but now has an avenue to do so. Collins will put away the pageant life when she starts her freshman year at Auburn, but Melissa thinks she’ll definitely go back at some point because she loves the people so much. So, tune in to Miss America in a few years, and maybe you’ll see Collins on the big screen, sporting another crown.

To learn more about Collins’ journey as Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen, follow her on Instagram @maoteenal. You can also find her jewelry on Instagram @_cdesigns.

A Quick Q&A

Hear a little bit more from Collins about some of her Vestavia favorites and some pageant tips:

Go-to dinner spot?

My favorite restaurant in Vestavia is Sol Azteca!

Favorite dessert?

I love Cafe Iz chocolate bombs!

Place to shop?

The Clothes Tree! They’re the best, and they’re my sponsors for Miss Alabama’s Outstanding Teen.

Most memorable VHHS moment?

When we raised $250,000 for cancer research.

Why should more girls try a pageant?

It gives you the opportunity to pursue a college degree debt-free and gain interview and public speaking skills, self-confidence, and a servant’s heart. And you make lifelong friends!

Biggest piece of pageant advice?

Continue to be yourself and allow the judges to know your personality throughout the pageant. Trying to imitate someone else’s style is only going to distract you from doing your best. For me, that meant staying rooted in my faith when I was anxious during competition.