Sylvia Gomes captured the hearts of people in her hometown and across the country when the former Miss Hamden, Conn., made it to the top 10 finalists of the Miss America pageant in September. The daughter of an immigrant who grew up in Bridgeport, Conn., Gomes became the first Miss Connecticut in 19 years to make it to the final 10. A member of Compass, a national campus evangelization group, she is not afraid to talk about her faith and her efforts to promote mentoring programs. She did so recently with Register correspondent Matt Sedensky.
Sedensky: Who is Sylvia Gomes? Gomes: I am a 21-year-old junior at Holy Cross College double-majoring in political science and art. I am the daughter of an immigrant fisherman from Portugal. As far as personality goes, I've always been a pretty calm, patient person, who is quiet and not very outgoing … not one to be in the spotlight. It's kind of funny that I even decided to participate in the Miss America organization where the stereotype is that people are very outgoing and bubbly and like to be in the spotlight.
And you happen to be Catholic?
I am a very proud Catholic. I try very hard not to be a “cafeteria Catholic” who tries to pick and choose the aspects of the religion that they like. I am the older of two daughters in a family that is very tight-knit in comparison to most today. The Catholic religion is one of the reasons that that is so. I want to finish my undergraduate education at Holy Cross [College in Worcester, Mass.] and then go on to grad school for either communications or political science. I'm thinking about either working in the teaching field or in a government office. I think family is not one of the things that young women talk about as being part of their future, but I definitely want to have a family of my own.
How important a role has faith played in your life?
How do I express how much it played a part? It was a really big part because my parents are Portuguese and they always brought me to church growing up. We went every Sunday, and we never missed it. For me, God is the lighthouse. He shows me the way. I'm not a theologian, but reading the Bible, I've learned a lot about what I can do to improve my life and the lives of other people.
Did you ever think that being the daughter of an immigrant fisherman from a very troubled city would have a negative impact on what you wanted to achieve?
If anything, I knew it would have a positive impact on what I wanted to achieve and what I will achieve in the future, because you have to work a little harder. You have to take less things for granted, and you just know a lot more about real life, in a sense, than someone who was maybe raised in an upper-class family. And people do sort of bill you as [an example of how to achieve] the American dream.
What made you choose mentoring — the pairing of adults or older kids with at-risk youngsters — as your Miss America platform?
I worked with mentoring growing up, and I knew that there was a big need for it. … A lot of my friends really needed role models because they didn't have the type of parents who took them to church on Sunday, and I thought mentoring was a really good way that a lot of kids could get their role models. I knew going into this that if I could influence someone to do good, or to go out and be a mentor to a child, that it would be worthwhile. The pageant isn't about the crown and the roses and the gown, it's about reaching out to people.
What would you say to people who don't support the pageant scene?
The majority of people who don't support the Miss America organization in particular don't support it probably because they're ignorant about how it works. … Give me five minutes with somebody that is really antagonistic and really doesn't want to listen, and I'll be able to change their mind about the pageant.
You made it to the group of the 10 finalists in the Miss America pageant. How hard was it to be eliminated?
Part of it has to do with God's will. It just wasn't in his plan, and so I was very happy just being able to get there. [Making] it to the top 10 was the icing on the cake. It got me some extra scholarship money, and a chance to talk about my hometown and my friends and my family on national television. That's what I most especially wanted.
How did you stay calm while you were on stage at the pageant?
At the Miss Connecticut Pageant, one of the questions the person asked me on stage was, “You seem to be so focused on the piano, how do you keep that focus and stay so calm?” Before the pageant I was given a prayer [card] in Portuguese that [included an invocation to the] Holy Spirit and a prayer to St. Anthony. I brought that with me to Miss America. Most people have a four-leaf clover or some necklace charm, but I don't believe in any of that. I'd much rather rely on my faith than some gold or leaf or something.
Who do you think has had the most significant impact on your life?
It's definitely my parents. I know that it's a cliché sort of answer, but they have made me into who I am.
What advice do you have for young people regarding issues of faith?
There's so much to say I don't know how to put it in so few words. It's so important to have faith and the only way you're ever going to be happy is to have faith in God. It's not money; it's not anything else. Faith is really going to help you in school, it's going to help you in life. It's going to help you make the right decisions and the right choices and to be a good person. A lot of people today … want to be different, they … get all these piercings and they'll get purple hair. But if you really want to be different today you have to be a good person. Don't forget everything your family has done to support you. And whether or not you have a supportive family, turn to God. Follow your dreams and don't believe the “I'll believe it when I see it” crowd.
What does your faith teach you?
My faith teaches me to be patient and calm, not to get angry easily, to see the best in other people, not be judgmental of them, and … how to be a good person and choose which path in life is the right one. It is relaxing and calming to turn to God and know that he's always going to be there to listen. I remember to thank him in good times and bad times.
How do you balance being a college student with being a religious person?
For me, it's not hard. I think you just have to surround yourself with the right people and you have to have friends that are more like you rather than the ones who like to go out Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and drink themselves into a stupor.
Matt Sedensky writes from Bridgeport, Connecticut.