KINGSTON – Beauty and brains is a powerful combination. Add a mountain of courage to the mix and you get Jessica Marfeo, a University of Rhode Island junior recently crowned Miss Rhode Island.
Marfeo is triple majoring in biology, elementary education and pre-physician assistant, with the goal of getting two master’s degrees, including one in public health.
She is also a cancer survivor at the tender age of 19. When she was 5, she was diagnosed with cancer of the nerve tissue behind a lung. The tumor was surgically removed, and, at 13, doctors officially declared her in remission.
Her story takes on even greater poignancy considering that her brother, Michael, died of brain cancer when he was 2, the same year he was diagnosed.
“It’s clear sailing for me now," says Marfeo. “No issues at all. It makes me feel very thankful. Every day is a gift, especially after what I’ve been through and what my brother went through."
Gone are the days when beauty pageants were all about looks. Today’s contestants are intelligent, talented and gritty too. In fact, Marfeo’s win carries $88,00O in scholarships, including full tuition toward master’s degrees at Bryant and Salve Regina universities.
She’s grateful for the awards: a $5,000 academic tuition scholarship from the Miss RI Scholarship Program; a full tuition graduate scholarship at Salve Regina; a $10,000 tuition scholarship to Bryant, which is renewable for four years; a $1,700 scholarship for professional development courses at the Dale Carnegie Institute; a $500 Louanne Gamba Talent Award; a $250 Interview Award; a $250 Quality of Life Award; a $250 Lifestyle and Fitness Scholarship; and a $1,000 Community Service Award from the Miss America Organization.
Marfeo will also compete for another $50,000 in scholarships at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City in September.
“My crown is four points and each point represents one of our goals: success, service, style and scholarship," she says. “Scholarship is very important to the organization."
Marfeo grew up in Exeter and still lives there with her parents, Mary and Michael, and her other brother, Joseph, 14. Young Michael’s cancer was devastating for the family. A year after his death, Marfeo got pneumonia and a chest X-ray revealed a spot behind her left lung.
The result of the biopsy: neuroblastoma. After the surgery, Marfeo’s parents decided against aggressive chemotherapy and its harsh side effects and instead chose a natural regimen involving diet. It worked, and she happily reports that her cancer is in remission.
Beauty pageants were popular in her house growing up. She witnessed her first one on the children’s television cartoon, Rugrats, with Susie and Angelica strutting about. Every year, Marfeo and her mother would host a party with friends to watch the Miss America Pageant. The youngster wondered: maybe I can do that. When she placed in the top 10 in the Miss Rhode Island Outstanding Teen contest in 2009, she was hooked.
At Prout High School, she excelled academically and was a cheerleader and teen ambassador for the Rhode Island Department of Health, giving talks about teen pregnancy and other health issues. URI was her first choice. “Absolutely," she says. “I grew up going to basketball and football games here."
At first, she thought she might study pre-med, but decided on a physician’s assistant degree because she figured she’d be able to spend more time with patients and her future family.
Her life is full. She volunteers in the oncology unit at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, playing with patients in the recreation room. “I’m always covered in glitter and Play-Doh," she says, with a chuckle. “It’s the favorite time of my week."
She’s community outreach representative for WOWW, or We’re Offering Women Wisdom, a URI group that provides a place for students to talk about weighty topics like date rape and safe socializing. And she’s a mentor for students considering degrees in pre-med.
She is also the reigning Miss University of Rhode Island, a title conferred on her by the Miss Rhode Island Organization so she could run in the state pageant. She could have opted for Miss Exeter, but she says her heart is with URI. “Go Rhody!" she says.
To get ready for the pageant, Marfeo will spend the summer brushing up on her already-superb interview skills to prepare herself for questions that could be as varied as “What do you think of Obamacare?" to “What’s the state bird of Rhode Island?"
She also plans to fine tune the service aspect of her competition – an educational program she created called Be Friends First, or BFF, which teaches children and teenagers how to deal with bullying and peer pressure. Marfeo’s credo: treat others how you would like to be treated.
The Miss America Pageant lasts three weeks, so Marfeo will take a leave of absence from URI in the fall to compete. If she wins, well, then her life will get even bigger.
“This is all a great experience for me," she says. “I’m representing Rhode Island, and I absolutely love our Ocean State. It’s very surreal to me."