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Miss America Has Never Been an Active-Duty Air Force Officer — Until Now: 'I Wasn't Expecting to Win' (Exclusive)

Miss America 2024 Madison Marsh is not only a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force — she's also getting her master's degree at the Harvard Kennedy School

<p>Houston McCollough; Whitney Marsh Foundation</p> Madison Marsh

Houston McCollough; Whitney Marsh Foundation

Madison Marsh
  • Madison Marsh, 22, won the 2024 Miss America crown on Sunday, becoming the first active-duty Air Force officer to win the title

  • Marsh began competing in pageants during her freshman year at the Air Force Academy

  • She tells PEOPLE that her "big focus" as Miss America is continuing her work with pancreatic cancer, which her mother died of 2018

It’s not easy being in pageantry and in uniform, but U.S. Air Force officer Madison Marsh — who's also 2024's Miss America — is out to change that.

“We’ve had this preconceived notion in the past that you might be judged and not be taken seriously as a leader,” Marsh, a 22-year-old second lieutenant and the first active-duty Air Force officer to win the title, tells PEOPLE exclusively.

“This just proves that you can be feminine while leaning into your leadership role," she adds.

Related: Grace Stanke Never Imagined a Nuclear Engineer Winning the Miss America Crown — Until She Did It

Marsh grew up in Ft. Smith, Arkansas with four siblings, a physician dad, and a mom who worked as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA). Her dreams of becoming a marine biologist were sidelined when she attended space camp, which inspired her passion for flying, and in 2019, she entered the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

Right after graduation, the high achiever continued to pursue her education as a graduate intern at Harvard Medical School, where she is studying ways to utilize artificial intelligence to detect pancreatic cancer and pursuing her master’s degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School through her 2022 National Truman Scholarship.

“None of it would have happened if I didn’t join the Air Force,” Marsh says.

<p>Houston McCollough</p> Madison Marsh

Houston McCollough

Madison Marsh

Related: Woman Escapes Parents' Arranged Marriage to Her Cousin — and Joins the Air Force: 'I Had to Leave' (Exclusive)

In 2018, Marsh faced her biggest challenge when her mom Whitney died of pancreatic cancer just nine months after being diagnosed.

“The big part about my mom that I really love was just her passion for service," says Marsh. "She was a CASA worker in town for children in foster care.”

Marsh’s mom would typically be assigned to work with a few foster children at a time, assisting in everything from getting birthday gifts to handling court appearances.

“My mom really cared about giving back to communities and people,” Marsh says. “And that’s what made my childhood so special because my mom wanted to make sure we had a loving environment and wanted to give that to other kids as well.”

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<p>courtesy Whitney Marsh Foundation</p> Madison Marsh and mom Whitney Marsh

courtesy Whitney Marsh Foundation

Madison Marsh and mom Whitney Marsh

Less than two weeks after her mom's death, Marsh got an idea that led to the founding of The Whitney Marsh Foundation, which raises money for pancreatic cancer research, awareness, early detection, and patient care.

One day, her brothers forced her to leave the house and go to the gym as a healthy distraction. “My mom was like a crazy, crazy athlete and would run 10 miles a day, then bike and swim,” she says.

While she was there, Marsh realized she needed to do something to honor her mother and decided to hold a yearly race, which has raised close to $300,000 since the foundation was founded..

“One of my big focuses this year is Miss America is really going to be looking at international policy for pancreatic cancer,” she says.

<p>Houston McCollough</p> Madison Marsh

Houston McCollough

Madison Marsh

Then, in her freshman year at the Air Force Academy, Marsh surprised her loved ones by competing in pageants

“I think at first everyone was very confused,” says Marsh. “Your first year at the Academy is your hardest. You wear the uniform 24/7, you own no civilian clothes. You’re training all the time. It’s just military, military, military.”

The purpose of the training, Marsh says, is to break you down and then build you back up as a group. It’s not about glamming up for pageants.

“I think everyone was like, ‘What in the world is she doing?’” Marsh says. “They had an obvious stereotype, but I know after watching this pageant my family understood why I competed.”

<p>courtesy Whitney Marsh Foundation</p> Madison Marsh

courtesy Whitney Marsh Foundation

Madison Marsh

Related: Emma Broyles Wears 'Forever Miss America' Gown Featuring Past Winners Before Crowning Successor

Still, being so driven to achieve took a toll.

“The Academy taught me how to fit 36 hours of work into a 24-hour day, but I struggled a lot balancing my personal life in my freshman year,” Marsh says. “I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect.”

Luckily, a close friend warned her not to get so caught up in work that she forgot to make memories.

“That would have been a mistake, so I started doing little things every day,” Marsh says. “Like every night I’m going to read for 30 minutes so I can take time away from my phone and have time for me."

<p>Houston McCollough</p> Madison Marsh

Houston McCollough

Madison Marsh

Marsh says she admires all of the 51 women competing for Miss America.

“It’s more than just the superficial stuff. You see young women that are talented, passionate and well-spoken with some of the best resumes you’ll ever see,” Marsh says. “They are community driven and on a mission.”

Although her title is already opening new doors, Marsh says she's going to take things one step at a time.

“I'm excited for all of the options, but I've learned this past week not to plan too much because I wasn't expecting to win Miss America," Marsh says. "Now we're here, so we'll just have to see where everything else goes as well.” 

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