Julia Van Steenberghe: Miss Maine USA says, ‘I definitely bleed blue’

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Julia Van Steenberghe’s parents’ living room in Old Town was transformed into a veritable TV studio, with ring lights surrounding her as she gave probably the biggest interview of her life so far. 

Van Steenberghe — a master’s student in human development at the University of Maine — was chatting virtually with officials from the Miss USA pageant. After being postponed in the spring due to the coronavirus, Miss USA is finally slated to take place Nov. 7–9 at Graceland in Memphis.

For Van Steenberghe, who was crowned Miss Maine USA in November 2019, it’s been a most interesting year to say the least. 

“If you were to ask me two and a half years ago what Miss USA was, I genuinely would have had no idea,” she says.

Back then she was an undergraduate student, double majoring in elementary education and child development and family relations in the UMaine College of Education and Human Development. A Presidential Scholar involved in several groups and activities both on and off campus, Van Steenberghe was approached by Erica Cole, who represented Maine in the 2005 Miss USA competition, who suggested that she compete in the 2018 state pageant. 

“I was looking for a way to challenge myself mentally and physically, and the timing was really good, so I jumped right in and haven’t looked back since,” Van Steenberghe says.

With Cole serving as her mentor and coach, Van Steenberghe was named first runner up of the 2018 Miss Maine competition. She returned to the pageant last year, earning the title.

Training for the pageants meant keeping her body and mind in peak condition, Van Steenberghe says. She describes waking up at 4 a.m. to go to the gym, so she could workout before attending classes full-time. She also says she read or listened to a variety of news sources to make sure she was up-to-date on current events. 

“After I won Miss Maine, it was just an indescribable feeling that came over me, because it’s one of those things that you work so hard for. I can honestly say I have dedicated part of every day for the past two years toward the goal of competing at Miss USA,” she says.  

As she prepares for the in-person portion of the competition, Van Steenberghe reflects on how much UMaine has helped her toward her goals.

“The University of Maine has provided me with academic opportunities that have helped me in many aspects of my life. Even pageantry — it’s really helped me explore passions and explore what I want to change in the world,” she says.

“I definitely bleed blue,” she adds.

The finals of the Miss USA competition will air on the FYI, Network. More information is available online.

How would you describe the academic atmosphere and student experience at UMaine?
Well I’m sitting in the Admissions office right now. That’s where my graduate assistantship is through, so I’m a little biased. But I couldn’t have chosen a better school. It has large school opportunities, like I was able to do cheer for three seasons at Division I football and basketball games. But I was also able to form really close connections with faculty members and other students in my classes. So it was really the perfect combination of the big school opportunities with the small school feel. 

Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who has made your UMaine experience better, and if so, who and how?
I would have to say Dr. Sandy Caron has been my go-to-professor since my first semester as an undergrad. She was the reason I switched from my original major, business, to child development and elementary education. I’ve done research with her, and she’s been amazing and really guided me through my entire academic experience. 

But honestly, everyone in the elementary education program has been amazing. So I could probably list every professor I’ve had in the College of Education and Human Development and say they’ve been the best. They’re so involved and they want to see you succeed, and are willing to go above and beyond to make sure you’re successful.

What is the most interesting, engaging or helpful class you’ve taken at UMaine?
I love school, so it’s hard to narrow it down. But I have to say my social studies methods course (ESS 315 — Teaching Social Studies in the Elementary School) with Evan Mooney was amazing. It really helped when I taught fifth grade for a semester, but also it helped me personally develop my thoughts on what’s going on in the world. Also, CHF 351 — Human Sexuality with Dr. Caron was a really amazing course. There’s so many more, but those two stand out.

Have you gained any hands-on or real-world experience through your coursework? If so, tell us about it:
Being in the elementary education program, you have student teaching, which I actually decided not to do because I was originally anticipating that Miss USA would be in April or May, and I didn’t want my student teaching semester to be interrupted. So, what I did instead, I took a long-term substitute position with RSU 22 in Hampden, teaching fifth grade. That taught me that I was in the right field and it made me realize that I wanted to go back to school for a Master’s degree.

When do you plan to graduate from your master’s program, and what do you hope to do after graduation?
I want to get my Ph.D. I’m not sure of the focus yet, probably school or clinical counseling/psychology.

What clubs, activities or organizations have you been involved with during your time at UMaine?
I was very active in Greek Life as an undergrad. I cheered on the cheerleading team for three years. I was on Team Maine, so I worked for the Admission’s office. I also worked several jobs at Campus Recreation, including teaching fitness classes. And then I did a lot of things outside the university, like coaching the middle school cheerleading team in Old Town. So I kept pretty busy.

What difference has UMaine made in your life?
I credit a lot of who I am today to the University of Maine. If you were to ask me in 2016 if this school would have such a big impact on my life, I probably wouldn’t have thought so. I would’ve thought, I’m just going to school and I’m going to get my degree. I had no idea that UMaine would give me my best friends, it would give me opportunities, it would give me a graduate assistantship to pay for graduate school. It has really shaped the person I am in all realms of my life, personal, professional, academic. 

Describe UMaine in one word.

Care to elaborate?
It’s been the place that’s allowed me to grow into the person that I’ve always wanted to become. It’s given me the tools and the opportunities that I’ve needed, and that’s something that I’m so thankful for.

Contact: Casey Kelly, casey.kelly@maine.edu