Senior psychology major La’Naiya Coney-Brown’s journey to Northern Kentucky University was an unconventional one. Born in Huntsville, Alabama, she originally moved to the region to run track and pursue a degree in law at Cincinnati Christian University. Her plans abruptly changed, however, when CCU closed at the end of its fall semester in 2019, leaving Coney-Brown and many of her classmates in a state of uncertainty.
As a gesture of support to the displaced students, NKU reopened its registration deadline and offered scholarships for students to transfer before spring. Coney-Brown seized the opportunity. Three years later, she has found a new home on campus, switched to a new major that best suits her interests and was crowned queen in the first-ever Miss NKU pageant. Though Coney-Brown initially placed second in the competition, after the first-place winner stepped down from her post, she ascended to the top spot, which qualifies her to participate in this summer’s Miss Kentucky competition.
“We weren’t really looking at it as a competition between each other, but as a competition within ourselves."
“It was kind of a coincidence how things happened,” she says, “but I think it’s how things were supposed to go.”
Coney-Brown’s introduction to the pageant world was similarly atypical. She was an avid athlete growing up, participating in a plethora of sports from softball to dance before enrolling in college, and had never considered competing until college.
“I heard about an opportunity last year before we started the Miss NKU pageant: It was called Miss Northern Kentucky,” she says. “When I tried out for it, I was told I couldn't do it because I was too broad in the shoulders, and I would look too masculine. And that's normal for most female athletes, especially those in sports where we're lifting, upper body weight is our thing. We're told that a lot, and I didn't like that. I wanted to prove to them, and to myself, that this was something I could do really well.”
The debut of Miss NKU offered Coney-Brown the chance to prove the doubters wrong. It was many of the participants’ first exposure to pageants, and they worked together to research past Miss America Scholarship competitions and develop their own skill sets.
“We weren’t really looking at it as a competition between each other, but as a competition within ourselves,” she says.
Her favorite portion of the pageant was the interview, which allowed Coney-Brown to demonstrate her passion for youth mentorship. Before starting at NKU, she was the intern for a church’s operations and worship team, helping out wherever she could.
“During my first year of really just being at the church, we noticed how the youth gravitated towards me,” she says. “Whether that was the young women or the young men, they were willing to listen and bring questions and just come to me for help. Our next generation is really struggling with what they want to do and what their purpose is. Having someone they actually listened to and were okay with coming to or being vulnerable with—we wanted to take advantage of that.”
She started out by taking groups from the church out to lunch or to get their nails done, which grew into a chance to take interest and invest in their future.
“We started having all of our kids improve in going after their dreams and seeing those lightbulbs go off,” she says. “Mentorship is a huge thing for kids. If you don't have it, they're less motivated to do a lot of things. If they do have that consistent motivator, that consistent fan cheering behind them, then they are more likely to do so many more things.”
Being crowned queen of the Miss NKU pageant means that Coney-Brown will travel to Bowling Green to compete for Miss Kentucky America. The annual pageant is hosted by the Miss Kentucky Scholarship Organization, and its winners earn the chance to compete for the national Miss America title and a full-time job within the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.
According to Coney-Brown, being selected for the event means that NKU trusts in her talents and convictions.
“Win or lose, I would still come home and still do the same things that I'm wanting to do,” she says. “This pageant was about more than being pretty, wearing a dress and walking in heels. It was about what cause you are standing on and fighting for the truth. Just because I was an athlete and I have a masculine build doesn't take away the feminine parts of me or take away the parts of me that actually cares about different causes.”
Coney-Brown’s interest in mentorship extends to her major in psychology. Though she was initially studying visual communication and design, a desire to help others steered her in a new direction. After graduation, she plans to pursue post-graduate degrees and become a counselor.
“I’m fascinated by the mind, and I wanted to know more about how it works,” she says. “With young kids who experience trauma, you can’t always talk to them like an actual adult to get them to share this with you. I’m figuring out how to engage in different therapeutic ways to get certain things out of kids, like art therapy or playing basketball with them.”
According to Coney-Brown, NKU has uniquely prepared her for those goals.
“Thanks to all the opportunities I’ve had through NKU, I now work for Cincinnati Children’s,” she says. “If I didn’t go to NKU, I know that I wouldn’t have had the exposure, background or education to do so. I know once I graduate in December, I'm set for a job and I’m set to come back if I want to continue my education.”