(July 12, 2023) It was in her third attempt that twenty-five-year-old Manju Bangalore won Miss Oregon USA 2023 title becoming the first South Asian woman to do so. The persistent and multifaceted youngster called the win, ‘the cherry on top’ because it gave her ‘a bit more platform’ to do the kind of work that she has been doing. Manju is a role model for young Brown girls in the US, not just as a pageant winner but as an aspiring astronaut, actor, model, activist, author and a non-profit founder who started Operation Period and Painting with Parkinson’s.
The postgraduate student at the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences in the US, will be proudly representing her state, Oregon in the upcoming 72nd Miss USA pageant, slated to take place in October in Nevada.
Whether it is the world of pageantry, academics, extracurricular activities or her career, Manju has displayed consistent excellence, occasionally pushing her own boundaries. Her motivations are not solely driven by the desire to enhance her resume but stems from an innate inner drive to fulfil her purpose – personal growth and to make a positive impact on the community.
Bagging five NASA and one White House internship
Before joining the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, Manju graduated from the University of Oregon with a major in physics and minor in maths. An ambitious young woman who wanted a head start in her career, she was looking everywhere for internships. She ended up bagging not one or two but five NASA internships and one White house internship on science policy.
“Over the course of my five NASA internships, four of which were in the astronaut office, I contributed to propulsion research and helped design and build the cockpit displays of the Orion spacecraft,” she said. Talking about her White House experience she remarked, “One of my favourite memories was staffing a Hidden Figures screening for First Lady Michelle Obama.”
Finding inspiration in Kalpana Chawla
From the tender age of four, Manju aspired to become an astronaut. This dream had been sparked during a visit to the air and space museum in her locality. It was there that she had stumbled upon the remarkable story of Kalpana Chawla – the pioneering Indian woman who ventured into space. “Just seeing someone who looks like me doing this incredible thing made me feel like I could do it,” she remarked. Her strong work ethic and the trait of dedication and hard work comes from her parents, Phani and Geetha Bangalore, who migrated from South India and own and operate a seed-testing lab in Oregon
While she was pursuing her undergraduate studies at the University of Oregon, she applied for hundreds of internships and ‘got rejected by ninety-nine percent of them’. Quite by chance she had come across NASA’s portal during her search and had discovered that there was an entire portal of NASA focused on internship. Like other applications she went ahead with applying there too without any high hopes. But to her immense joy, she was selected by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
Later, her application to work at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy was accepted too. At the White House, she met astronaut Sunita Williams who guided her to land four more internships at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in the astronaut office. “I learnt quite a lot working on the cockpit displays of the spacecraft that will go back to the moon and then to Mars one day,” she shared.
Fuelled by these experiences, Manju enrolled herself into the International Institute of Astronautical Sciences’ postgraduate programme. “The school hasn’t selected us by any means to go to space, but they are putting us through the training that’s necessary to one day go to space,” shared the happy youngster.
Operation Period and Painting with Parkinson’s
When Manju was 17, she started Operation Period to address menstrual disparities that she saw around her. The seed for starting this venture germinated in her mind when she encountered a woman in a medical store who was desperately in need of menstrual products but could not purchase them due to lack of money. Not only did Manju generously pay for her needs but came out of the store with the determination to do something about women like the one she met in the store.
Through Operation Period, the youngster has made a significant impact, distributing over 300,000 menstrual products worldwide and organizing events to raise awareness about menstrual health education.
She also runs a second non-profit, Painting with Parkinson’s, to help bring meaning through art to people like her father, who suffers from the disease. The non-profit provides free painting kits and organises free painting classes to people affected by PD. “I believe that art has the power to heal, and everyone is an artist and should let that light shine,” she remarked.
From science and service to the world of pageantry
The multifaceted youngster has been participating in pageants since she was in her teens. The Oregon resident had made a couple of unsuccessful attempts in the Oregon Teen USA competition, but she remained determined. In 2017 she had managed to get successful in the local pageant, Miss Benton County USA. When she entered her twenties and could no longer participate in the Oregon teen pageant, she set herself on the Oregon Miss USA competition. It took her three attempts to finally win the crown. Overjoyed with the fruit of her persistence she shared, “The months that have followed after winning have been the best months of my life.”
Multiple experiences on the pageant stage have given the Global Indian a unique perspective on what it takes to be a winner. “A beauty pageant obviously has a component of outward appearance, but also in those seemingly beauty-oriented competitions, they are still looking at how poised you are, how confident on stage you are,” she said adding, “I was by no means the tiniest person on stage; I am curvier, and none of that was held against me.” In fact, Manju thinks it helped her. “It showed that I am confident in my body and who I am. It has helped me develop a thick skin, to face and filter out the detractors.”
The Indian-origin American embraces and beholds her looks, her identity and her culture with utmost pride.
Wearing many hats
Manju has a knack for acting since her school days. Her stint in modelling and the world of pageantry led her to some good acting projects. She has guest starred on two television shows – Black is King, Depot and Animal Kingdom and is hopeful for more work on this front in future. Working in Black is King was particularly special because she got an opportunity to work with Beyoncé, the American singer and songwriter. Recently Manju turned an author with her debut children’s book, You can be all the things you want to be.
Born to immigrant parents, growing up Manju realised that the world is not an equal place. Instead of being bogged down by racism that she and her family faced, the youngster grew up with the sense of responsibility towards people who are looked down upon for being different. Manju is also a supporter of black and transgender rights and goes out of her way to support these causes. She looks at the Miss Oregon USA 2023 title to be a good platform to work on these issues.