This summer, Arianna Quan was crowned Miss Michigan — but the 23-year-old, who aspires to be an automobile designer and is paying for her studies with the tens of thousands of dollars she’s won from competing with the Miss America Organization, didn’t have a typical “Toddlers & Tiaras” upbringing. Quan, a Beijing-born immigrant whose grandfather fled to China from North Korea, was raised in China by her grandparents, while her mother came to the United States to build a career as a textiles designer.
When Quan was six, her mother brought her to Detroit. Quan spoke no English, but was too young to be self-conscious; she was simply thrilled to be reunited with her mother, and to be in America. “When you’re from another country, America is something that seems extremely grand, and full of endless possibilities,” she says. “It’s idealized to the point that it seems like a fairytale land — at that age, to think that I could literally be anything that I wanted was very exciting.”
Quan grew up thinking of herself as an American, and by the time she was naturalized at the age of 14, she felt that it was simply a formal acknowledgement of something that had long been a part of her. Still, even after becoming a citizen, it wasn’t easy to be a 5’10” Asian-American teen in a predominantly white school. “I was bullied, I was made fun of, and the fact that I was different was constantly pointed out to me,” Quan says.
My mother always told me that America is about the pursuit of happiness — you aren’t guaranteed anything, but you’re allowed to pursue it. It’s hard work that got me to where I am.”
Such experiences taught Quan the importance of resilience and self-belief — traits that are serving her well as she strives to succeed as one of just four female students in a class of more than 80 auto-design majors at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies. “I never really fit into any particular group, and because of that, I had the opportunity to figure out who I really wanted to be,” she explains. “I’m not afraid to take risks, or step outside the box.”
Quan’s mother encouraged that self-belief, and also stressed the importance of hard work. Last year, Quan held down two jobs — one as a cheerleader for the Detroit Tigers Energy Squad and another as a hostess at Joe Muer Seafood — while also studying full time and attending events, galas and political rallies as Miss Wayne County. “It was instilled in me that I could achieve anything I wanted through hard work and perseverance,” she says. “My mother always told me that America is about the pursuit of happiness — you aren’t guaranteed anything, but you’re allowed to pursue it. It’s hard work that got me to where I am.”
While Quan is determined to build a career in the auto industry, this year she’s focusing on using her position as Miss Michigan to advocate for immigrants across the state. She’s particularly concerned about the plight of undocumented children, and plans to start a non-profit group to help provide legal counsel for children undergoing deportation proceedings, who often lack legal representation. “Focusing on children forces people to focus on the humanity of the situation,” she says. “It’s something I really want to work on throughout this year.”
Quan hopes that by sharing her own experiences as an immigrant, and her grandfather’s stories of fleeing from North Korea, she’ll be able to encourage people to have more empathy for both refugees and immigrants. “Immigration is seen in a very black and white manner, and we often forget we’re talking about people,” she says. “If you were in their situation, you’d want the same things they want.”