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PASADENA - In high school, Haley Amber Heiselt was the girl who didn't talk.

"When I came to college, I decided I didn't want to be that way any more," said Heiselt, a Cal Poly Pomona freshman majoring in mechanical engineering.

"I didn't want to be the one people always overlooked. I wanted to stand out and be remembered. I wanted people to know that I did have something to say and that it had value."

Painfully shy, Heiselt and her mother were determined to change things for her and push her out of her comfort zone.

Mission accomplished: Heiselt will trade her formulas and lab work for high heels and evening gowns, when she competes today as Miss Riverside County USA in the Miss California USA pageant in Pasadena.

"Saturday's competition will be extremely competitive," Heiselt said.

"California, Texas and New York typically have the largest turnouts (at their pageants) with hundreds of girls, whereas states like Oregon or Idaho have numbers closer to 30 or 40. Right now, I think the number for California is 236."

Those numbers have led to a string of successes for Miss California USA, which has produced six Miss USAs since 1959, most recently Alyssa Campanella in 2011.

Heiselt grew up in Lake Elsinore, where she was a high school valedictorian at Temescal Canyon High School.

She became interested in the slippery world of quantum physics in seventh grade.

After graduation, Heiselt said she hopes to be accepted into the Navy's nuclear engineering program. The Navy is looking to recruit mechanical and electrical engineering majors.

"This is actually the first pageant I have ever done. I'm not a typical `pageant girl.' I've ridden horses since I was nine years old, so I'm more comfortable with mud and boots than make-up and high heels," she said.

Although the blonde Heiselt may not look like it, she's a mix of Native American and Latina.

Her pageant platform is supporting minorities in engineering, specifically though Project Lead the Way, which exposes minorities and underprivileged students to engineering in middle school and high school.

"I want people to remember me in whatever way made the greatest impact on them. Whether that's Haley Heiselt, Miss California, or Haley Heiselt, minority engineer," Heiselt said.

"I want people to be able to look up to me and say `She did it, so I can do it, too."'

And, today, she will.

"Of course, I go in Saturday with the hope of winning but I don't expect it," said Heiselt, who doesn't plan on entering any pageants after this one.

"I went into it with the goal of gaining confidence and overcoming my shyness.

"Doing this has given me so much confidence and really helped me grow as individual. Whether I win or lose on Saturday, I already gained what I wanted from it. At the end of this, I'll be walking away with something, whether it's the crown or not."

The Miss California USA pageant, which is today and Sunday at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, will be live streamed at misscaliforniausa.com.


Reach Beau at via email, call him at 909-483-9376, or find him on Twitter @InlandED.