Shy smiles and excited grins filled a conference room at ESD 112 as Southwest Washington students with hearing impairments and their families met with Miss Washington on October 23, 2023. Vanessa Munson is a graduate of Prairie High School who was crowned Miss Clark County in November 2022, and won the statewide pageant to receive the Miss Washington title in July 2023. She currently serves as an active-duty soldier for the United States Army.
After a brief opening address to share her story with audiology staff, students and their families, Munson said, “I don’t want to just stand up here and talk the whole time. Let’s hang out!” Munson then gave away Barbie dolls that have hearing aids and stickers to students and chatted with them about everything from hearing loss and ear surgery to being in the Army and being in pageants. Students eagerly opened up to her about their own journeys with hearing loss and their plans for the future.
Hearing loss is a personal topic to Munson who started losing her hearing at age 17, just a couple years after she started competing in pageants. “When I realized what was happening, my sense of identity and self were really shaken,” she reflected. It was the pageants and her role in the military that helped bolster her confidence, as both involved lots of public speaking. During her time in the Army, she has had eight ear surgeries–the most recent of which was just two days after the ESD event and involved implanting a permanent hearing aid called the Osia.
The gathering at the ESD was just one stop on a two-day schedule that included trips to 16 Clark County schools. In total, Munson gave away 50 Barbie dolls and met with more than 100 students. It was all a part of her Miss Washington community service initiative, “Beauty and Beyond: What is Your Beautiful?” Through this initiative, Munson works to empower all people through confidence building and inclusivity.
“Beauty is how you make others feel, and I want that to be a theme that others recognize and prioritize,” said Munson.
The audiology staff and attending families appreciated Munson’s inclusive message. The audiology team at ESD 112 serves roughly 350 students ages 6 months to 21 years in 30 school districts. Not only do they conduct hearing assessments and fit children for hearing aids (a student will go through at least three sets of hearing aids in their school career), but they act as advocates for students with hearing loss. That advocacy includes providing recommendations for classroom accommodations and training teachers and staff in how best to support children with hearing loss and their listening needs.
“Our students have been very excited to meet Miss Washington and learn her story,” said lead ESD 112 Audiologist Rachel Dillman. “She has been a wonderful role model and is just a really nice person.”
Vanessa Munson has a few months to recuperate from her most recent surgery before she goes on to compete in the Miss America pageant in January 2024–a dream she’s had since childhood. In the spring, she graduates with her bachelor’s degree in business management and will finish her four years of military service. After that, she plans to pursue her master’s in business administration with a long-term goal of joining the FBI.