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Pageantry and Engineering: An Interview with Emily Mahana

Updated: May 28, 2022

Emily Mahana is a civil engineer specializing in bridge design who was born and raised in Syracuse, New York. In addition to being an engineer, Emily actively competes in pageants, models and will be representing Syracuse at the Miss New York USA 2022 pageant. In this interview, we were able to get to know Emily and talk about engineering, pageantry and much more!

What is your name and where are you from?

Hi! My name is Emily Mahana and I live in Syracuse, NY – born and raised! (hint: it’s about 4 hours north of NYC!)

What do you do currently?

I work as a civil engineer, specializing in bridge design. I graduated from Syracuse University in 2018 with my Bachelors in Civil Engineering. Since then, I’ve been involved with various bridge replacement and bridge rehabilitation projects all across Upstate New York.

What sparked your interest in engineering?

My dad worked in the STEM fields, so I like to think being exposed to those careers at an early age is what first sparked my interest in STEM. In middle school and high school, I thought I wanted to be an architect, but after taking a class that explored both architecture and civil engineering, I realized I liked the math and science behind the design of structures rather than the artistic and aesthetic side of design!

When and why did you start competing in pageants?

I actually competed in my first pageant when I was a senior in college – so I'm fairly new to the world of pageants! I had grown up watching Miss USA and other pageants on TV and always had an interest, but I think I had been too shy to act on it. I realized that college was probably the best time to give it a shot before I entered the “real world” and had a job, and adult responsibilities, that would keep me from ever having the time to compete. But to my surprise, I won my very first pageant! I’ve been involved with various organizations ever since, most recently competing for the title of Miss New York USA.

What is your favorite part about competing in pageants?

I love the networking opportunities that being involved in pageantry provides. I’m able to connect not only with women from across New York, but with other women from around the country involved in pageants, too. I also really enjoy forming relationships with organizations that share my passion for STEM education, for example working with the Museum of Science and Technology in my hometown of Syracuse, NY and the National Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. Whether it's personal connections, or more professional connections, being involved in pageants opens those doors so wide for everyone involved!

Tell us about STEM Sundays with Emily.

STEM Sunday’s with Emily is an online series I created during the COVID pandemic to help parents and teachers teach STEM to children while learning from home. I realized after talking with some of my former teachers and current coworkers, that many were having a hard time adjusting to online, at-home learning, especially when it came to teaching math and science concepts. Using my background in STEM and engineering specifically, I created weekly videos using materials and objects most people can find around their homes that involved some sort of hand-on activity that related back to a specific STEM related concept. Now I use the series to highlight different STEM museums and organizations that people and families can visit in person now that COVID restrictions are beginning to lift around New York State.

Do you find it difficult to combine your interests in modeling and pageants with your interest in STEM? If so, how do you overcome that?

It definitely did require some trial and error on my part in terms of figuring out how to balance my personal life and my career, but I feel like I’ve been able to find the perfect medium at this point. Working full-time as a civil engineer, I have to make sure that I put my work first and meet all of my deadlines. But being open with the leadership at my company and explaining my passion for volunteering and my involvement in pageantry has made that balance so much easier. I feel so fortunate that they also embrace my passions along with me, and have helped support some of my efforts outside of the office. My hours might not always be the strict 9-5 that most of my other coworkers follow, but being able to have a more flexible schedule at work allows me to take time for STEM outreach and pageant travels while also making sure I get all of my engineering design work done correctly and on time.

Do you have any other hobbies or interests?

I absolutely love traveling! My favorite thing to do when I’m in a new city is to go on a food tour (if they have one)! It allows me to get to know the city both by getting a guided tour to learn some of the history, while also sampling some of that city’s most well-known and loved eats.

What advice would you give your younger self?

If I could go back and talk to a younger Emily, I would tell her to not be so hard on herself. I used to be such a perfectionist when I was growing up, and often was my harshest critic when it came to my grades or my dancing performances. But I've learned that living a life where you’re constantly getting down on yourself can be draining, both to yourself and others around you. If you give yourself a break and realize that no one is perfect, you begin to focus less on the “bad” and more on all the amazing achievements and “good” things you are doing instead!

"If I could go back and talk to a younger Emily, I would tell her to not be so hard on herself."

What advice would you give to girls who are interested in getting into pageants?

Do it!.. but don’t lose sight of who you are in the process! Sometimes it’s hard to get caught up in comparing yourself to others or thinking you need to change who you are in order to win over the judges, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Remember to stay true to yourself in every aspect of competition, because it is those unique qualities that make you stand out! Also, don’t forget about all of the amazing takeaways besides the crown and sash – competing in pageants has personally helped me further develop my self confidence, conquer my nerves when public speaking, grow my network across the country, and become more secure in who I am and what my goals are for the future.

What advice would you give to other girls who are interested in STEM?

Not to be repetitive, but the same advice applies – Do it! It’s going to be hard, but it is so worth it if that is what you are passionate about. In college, I was often one of the only girls in my classes, and I faced many instances where I felt unwanted or unappreciated by my fellow classmates early on. But I realized, I shouldn’t feel discouraged from doing what makes me happy just because it makes others uncomfortable. If anything, those people who thought I couldn't or shouldn't pursue engineering actually were serving as inspiration for me! You think I can’t do it? Watch me. And I encourage any young women interested in STEM to keep that in mind: it won’t be easy, and there will be times that you might doubt yourself or your abilities, but keep your dreams at the forefront and make those a reality regardless of what anyone has to say!

"...I realized, I shouldn’t feel discouraged from doing what makes me happy just because it makes others uncomfortable."

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Before I ever competed in a pageant, I grew up competing on a different stage as an Irish dancer! I started dancing when I was in elementary school, and fell in love with the sport right from the start. I loved the athleticism, but more importantly, I loved the culture. The Irish dance community is world wide, and I am still friends with many of the friends I made at competitions over the years. I like to think that my dance background of over 16 years and my comfort (and love) for being on stage helped to make the transition from competing in dance to competing in pageants very smooth. Sometimes I think what that next transition will be after pageantry.. but for now, I’m enjoying every minute of this part of my life!


You can see my STEM Sundays with Emily videos on Instagram @emilymahana or on YouTube:

I’ll be representing Syracuse at the Miss New York USA 2022 Pageant which will take place June 2-4, 2022 in beautiful Niagara Falls! You can visit for more information about the pageant!


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