A senior at the College of St. Benedict, Kari Knuttila was crowned Miss Minnesota in June.

In September, she will compete for scholarship dollars and the crown in the Miss America pageant. She recently spoke with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.

Drake: Tell me about your family.

I grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minn., as the middle child between two sisters. I grew up around pageants. My parents helped run the local pageant and my sisters and I always walked the ramp, and dreamed of getting the opportunity to one day get on stage. My father is an investment representative, and my mother is a religious education director for Holy Rosary, our hometown Catholic church.

I've been very blessed to grow up in a front-pew family. Church has always been a priority for my family. Not only did we attend church each Sunday, but we also said prayers every night, and we have been involved in the choir and music ministry.

I understand your mother participated in pageants as well.

Yes, she was crowned Miss Faribault right out of high school and had the opportunity to go to Miss Minnesota. While she didn't place, she grew so much through the experience that it was important for her to continue to support the Miss America program. She took over helping out with our local pageant.

In addition, my older sister Kimberly was crowned as Miss Perham and competed in Miss Minnesota in June, 1999, and my younger sister, Kathryn, is currently Princess Altona.

What is the most difficult hurdle you've faced and how did you face it?

Part of the reason that our family is so close is that I grew up in a family with an alcoholic history. Growing up with this problem was life-changing for us and it forced us to bond together in order to get through it.

It has challenged me to make the right kind of friendships through high school and college, and has made our family stronger. I think that this is also why our family is so faith-centered.

How has your faith played a role in becoming Miss Minnesota? It has played an enormous role. I've had a God-given gift for music ever since I was little. My parents knew that and reminded me to remember where that gift came from and the need to give back. That's why we so often played music at Church.

My faith is what has kept me centered, especially at Miss Minnesota. The 12 contestants began the competition with prayer that we might all do our best. I felt very confident that God was covering me in prayer from family and friends both at the pageant and back home. I expected to be nervous, but I wasn't, so I know that I was covered in prayer.

Prayer really keeps the 51 Miss America contestants centered. The public doesn't often get to see that side of the competition.

Your platform is that music makes a difference. How has music made a difference in your life?

Our family has always been very involved in music. My parents made a big commitment, driving us 90 miles one-way for piano lessons each week. I started piano when I was 4 years old and began teaching piano at age 15. My family, faith, and music has helped me to become the woman that I am today. Music has given me the tools to succeed in life, and that is what I feel it will do for others.

The discipline, self-confidence and self-expression I learned through music is parallel to none. When I sit down at the piano, people can see a glimpse of who I am by watching me play. This is what I want to portray not only to the judges, but also to everyone else that is watching.

Children need the opportunity for self-expression at a young age. Children that learn music excel. Unfortunately, so often school districts just do not have the budget for music programs, lessons and instruments. Part of my platform is trying to help find alternative sources of funding for music programs. Whether I win Miss America or not I look forward to spending a year being able to talk about my platform to help change people's mentality about music.

As you travel around the state speaking with youth and others, do you envision sharing about your faith?

Yes, I do. I can't talk about music without talking about it as a God-given gift. I'm not playing the piano to win, I'm playing to give glory to God. The competition needs to be about something bigger than yourself. I hope to use my year to be a witness. It was my prayer that I would make the top five in Minnesota and trusted that God would take it from there.

As the Miss America competition approaches in September what are your hopes?

My hope is to have a great time, and to walk out of every area of competition knowing that I did my best. Our father drilled into us the importance of setting goals. My goal is to make the top 10.

What do you hope to do after graduation? I hope to have my own private piano and voice studio and become a high school choral director. I love choir. In high school I did a clinical kind of experience and was able to do some teaching. While I'm putting off school for a little bit because of Miss America, I can't wait to graduate and begin working with students. It's a huge part of who I am.