Pitt engineering student to compete in statewide pageant

By Lindsay Carroll

Wafa Koubaa hurt her leg playing soccer with boys, which presents a problem.

In less than two weeks, she has to wear 5-inch heels.

Koubaa, an 18-year-old engineering student at Pitt, will compete in Harrisburg for Pennsylvania’s portion of the National American Miss Pageant.

Koubaa is also a Muslim-American student who wears a headscarf.

She said even though the pageant is more about community involvement and personality than physical appearance, her scarf will still stand out.

“I’ve been wearing it for a very long time, so it’s part of my identity now,” Koubaa said. “It’s part of my religion to wear it.”

Koubaa, whose parents came to the United States from Tunisia, entered the pageant because someone recommended her to participate, although she doesn’t know who. She received an invitation in the mail from the state director of the pageant and decided to try it because the winner receives a $1,000 scholarship.

When she received the invitation, she called the director to let her know about the headscarf, in case it would be a problem.

“I’m still a bit anxious to see what the judges will think of it,” Koubaa said. “Hopefully they will be open and understanding.”

She was invited to an open-call audition, but she had to miss it because she had an organic chemistry final. Instead, she sent a picture and application to her director through the mail. She soon found out she would participate in the state-wide competition.

Koubaa will be judged based on community involvement, an interview, a personal introduction and formal wear. If she wins, she will receive the scholarship and a chance to compete in the national competition in Orlando.

Meanwhile, Koubaa is at the University of Minnesota for the summer, researching the chemical properties of polymers, molecules arranged in long chains that can be found in substances like proteins or plastics. She became interested in polymers after doing her own independent research on the subject at Pitt.

Professor Frank Snowden, who directs the materials research program at the University of Minnesota, said that Koubaa was one of 15 students chosen to attend out of more than 100 applicants. The University selected her based on her high GPA, coursework, recommendation letters and interviews.

Snowden said Koubaa is younger than many of the students in the program, but she is curious and mature.

“We’ve got an eclectic group of students, and she fits in very well,” he said. “She’s very cooperative and very curious, and she’s got a great personality.”

Snowden said that, like him, Koubaa went to college early. He said she demonstrates her intelligence when she asks good questions and persists with strong follow-ups.

“Those are endearing qualities, especially for a scientist. A lot of students [her] age you’d expect to be more into themselves,” he said. “But she is not.”

Snowden said he initially thought that Koubaa, being a Muslim-American, would feel different from other students in the program, but that is not the case.

“When [I found out about the pageant], I thought, this is very different, but it fits her personality,” he said. “It’s as though she feels, ‘Yes, this makes me a little different, but what difference does that make?’”

Koubaa will graduate in two years, when she’s 20. During her senior year of high school at Gateway Senior High School in Monroeville, she participated in a program at Pitt that allowed her to take college classes before she graduated. She graduated from high school having completed her first year of college.

Koubaa said that she thinks her involvement on campus and her outgoing personality helped her perform well on the pageant application and will help her in the competition. At Pitt, she’s a member of Engineers Without Borders. She’s also a member of Engineers for a Sustainable World, working on a hydrokinetics project to find new ways to derive power from rivers.

Koubaa came to Pitt because it was the best engineering school close to Monroeville, and she needed to live at home since she was still in high school. She said she thinks graduating early from a good school will give her an advantage when looking at graduate schools and employment.

But that’s too far ahead. For now, Koubaa is concentrating on her research and the pageant. She said she hoped the headscarf won’t affect what the judges think of her, even though “the competition is more down-to-earth than finding the next supermodel.”

“I have in the past had some trouble with people [who see the headscarf], but most often when it is brought up, it’s more curiosity than anything,” Koubaa said. “I love to answer the questions people have, because if they know what I think, then we can be more open and more understanding.”