NASSAU, Bahamas — After a 10-month whirlwind of service as Miss Florida Teen USA, Jara Courson competed in the Miss Teen USA pageant Aug. 21-22 in the Bahamas. Although she did not win the national crown, the Seminole descendant and enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation gained confidence and social skills while representing Florida.
“I had the honor to represent the state that I love. It was the best experience of my life,” said Jara, 18. “I felt so loved and I realize how blessed I am to have the people in my life that I do. That was the most important thing I learned this year.”
Since she earned the Miss Florida Teen crown in October 2014, Jara received a glimpse into a life of glamour, but she also became closer to her parents, Jerry Wayne and Tara Osceola Courson.
“My mom put her heart into it and my dad coached me,” Jara said. “My grandmother, Terry Hahn, gets things done; any time I needed anything, I knew I could always count on her.”
Jara also learned practical skills, including how to interact with people from various backgrounds and speak in public without getting flustered.
“During my reign I’ve made speeches about self-empowerment and the importance of pursuing higher education,” she said. “I want to continue to be a role model.”
The week leading up to the pageant included filming, touring, rehearsing and preparing to compete for the title. The contestants’ schedule was packed with events – including a pajama party, welcome reception and athletic competition called the obstacle course – and plenty of rehearsals.
Jara and her family arrived five days before the pageant, which was held at the Atlantis Paradise Island resort. Tara went with one important job: support her daughter in any way she could.
“The Miss Universe organization kept them under very tight security. We couldn’t get to them at all,” Tara said. “But Jara texted me every day when she had time.”
One text occurred after Jara’s interview with judges BJ Coleman, Fred Nelson, Danielle Doty and Marc Passera. Jara felt it didn’t go very well, so Tara lifted her spirits and encouraged her to try her best during the swimsuit and evening gown competition during the preliminaries later that day.
“[Jara] did wonderfully,” Tara said. “She has done some runway modeling and is very confident on stage. I texted her and said no matter what happens, you can be happy knowing you did your best.”
Although Jara performed well, she did not advance to the top 15.
“She is a competitive athlete and wants to win at everything,” Tara said. “She wanted to win; that’s why she was there.”
Miss Louisiana Teen Katherine Haik captured the Miss Teen USA crown.
Jara’s director, Grant Gravitt Jr., president and executive producer of Tel-Air Interests which produces the Miss Florida Teen pageant, was with Jara throughout the pageant and helped her through the rough spots. As winner of Miss Florida Teen, Jara received a full scholarship to Florida Atlantic University.
“We couldn’t be prouder of her,” Gravitt said. “She may not have been Miss Teen USA, but I love the fact that I’m sending her to college.”
Jara, who earned an associate degree while attending Columbia High School in Lake City, Florida, began attending FAU Aug. 25 and is on track to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 2017. She plans to attend law school after graduation and is confident that she will hold a law degree by age 22.
“I was a girl who wore sweatpants and no lipstick,” she said. “I learned how to make impromptu speeches, how to host events and be on camera. I used to get nervous, but now I can handle myself. These are all invaluable things to a girl going into the workforce.”
Tara has seen “phenomenal personal growth” in her daughter since she became Miss Florida Teen. Jara said she is grateful for the experience.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Jara said. “But now I’m super excited to start college and the next chapter of my life.”