A senior at the University of Colorado Boulder, Serene Singh’s jam-packed schedule is enough to make anyone’s head spin. Between her involvement in pageantry, starting her own nonprofit, coaching for speech and debate and working alongside Michelle Obama for the Girls Global Alliance, Singh also makes time for her hobbies and passions like bhangra and art.

For her outstanding involvements and commitment to making the world a better place, it comes as no surprise that Singh has been recognized with a series of prestigious scholarships: the Boettcher Scholarship, the Truman Scholarship, and most recently the Rhodes Scholarship. Among the oldest international awards, Rhodes Scholars are offered full financial support to earn postgraduate degrees at the University of Oxford. Through winning the coveted Rhodes Scholarship, Singh became the first woman from CU Boulder to receive the esteemed award and the first from the university since 1993.

Her accomplishments paired with a fresh, effervescent personality make Singh an inspiring force and voice for women, the Sikh community, and young people chasing after their dreams. Her ambition is driven by her positivity, her passion inspired by a big heart.

Meet Serene Singh.

Photo Courtesy of Amy K Photography

303 Magazine: How did you get so involved in pageants? What do you love about them and what have you learned?

Serene Singh: I actually joined pageantry five years ago in 2013 because I despised pageantry and the women competing in pageants. For many years in middle and high school, I would hear about inarticulate pageant answers that were viral and other mistakes on national television. However, in my sophomore year of high school, I received an invite in the mail to join the Colorado pageant. Although I will admit I initially scoffed at the idea of me – a tomboy who never wore heels or makeup – competing in a pageant, I decided to try it out in order to challenge a strong bias I had against the activity.

Clearly, I fell in love with pageantry. I have been competing for the past five years and for me, trying out pageantry was the best decision I ever made. I love many aspects about pageantry – the friendships, the life skills you gain including long-term work towards a goal and the styling and fashion – understanding what works for your body, skin color, hair, and really understanding how to present your best self. Having been involved in Speech and Debate for the past 10 years or so – as a competitor, a captain, and now, a coach, Speech and Debate taught me how to walk into a room and command it through my voice. Pageantry taught me how to do the same thing without having to say a word, a skill incredibly unique and difficult to come by.

Photo Courtesy of Serene Singh

303: Taking your experience in pageantry, you created your own nonprofit to empower at-risk women. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do through The Serenity Project — Brave Enough to Fly?

SS: Yes, absolutely. The Serenity Project – Brave Enough to Fly is aimed at empowering young women in the community who are, sometimes, characterized as at-risk. These women have incredible stories of perseverance and strength – overcoming many obstacles in life like domestic violence and severe body dysmorphia.

Living in Colorado, a state with one of the highest suicide rates in the US, and after interning at the US Senate, I attended many conferences and sessions discussing policies, plans, and events concerning these at-risk women, but never including them. This upset me. I wanted to challenge the notions surrounding shame these women sometimes feel for their story, and really help add to the narrative surrounding self-love and body positivity in ways that are meaningful for individual women, and ultimately, their communities too.  

Pageantry gave me a platform to voice and truly believe in my dreams, and I wanted to do the same for other women, who might not have pageantry or modeling in their lives to learn those skills. So, in The Serenity Project, women gain confidence and skills like modeling, poise, and stage presentation through our annual fashion show and then throughout the year, work on their own projects with our mentors from around the world. In these projects, women give back to their community – identifying the needs of their unique community, and coming up with creative solutions (from policy to fundraising to non-profit establishment). Each of these makes this world a more loving, confident and good place to be.  

Photo Courtesy of Serene Singh

303: What is it like to work with all of those young women? Was there a defining moment before or during the show where you felt like this opportunity truly altered the possibilities they saw for themselves?

SS: Working with these women is always an incredible experience. The fashion show is my favorite part of the year and the calls, updates and progress I see on their journeys throughout the years bring me to tears.  

There are actually two that come to mind.

The first one was with one of our models who ended up becoming a primary part of the short documentary being created on The Serenity Project. This model, after the show, wrote a letter to the staff explaining how, before the show, she felt like she would never be beautiful or worthy and, a few times, contemplated quitting because of her self-doubt. However, after the show, she reflected on “feeling the most beautiful [she] has ever felt in her life” and that from this point onwards, no one can tell her she is not enough or does not deserve everything – she feels “unstoppable.”

Another experience was with one of the beautiful models who has Down Syndrome. Before the fashion show, she was incredibly stressed and worried about going on the stage in front of an audience, something she did not have much experience doing. Backstage, I remember I was running around and stopped to see all the models huddled around her giving her so much love and boost. I also went to her and gave her a small pep talk, reminding her that everyone in the audience was there to celebrate her and the beautiful woman that she is – nothing would change that. The next thing I know, she is strutting on the runway, giggling, and crying of happiness and true pride in what she just did – tell herself “yes” when it was easier to say “no.”

Photo Courtesy of Serene Singh

303: Can you tell us more about what the Global Girls Alliance program is?

SS: The Global Girls Alliance is an initiative lead by the Obama Foundation and Mrs. Obama aimed at encouraging more conversation, action, and leadership around girls’ education. Today, more than 98 million adolescent girls are not in school. That’s a lot of empty desks. That’s a lot of dreams that are being cut short. When adolescent girls receive an education, amazing things start to happen. Poverty goes down. Economies grow. Families get stronger. Babies are born healthier. And the world, by all accounts, gets better.

303: What was it like working alongside Michelle Obama?

SS: Working on the Global Girls Alliance with the leadership and expertise of leaders like Mrs. Obama, Tiffany Drake, Tubi Retta and Tara Abrahams among other girls’ education advocates was a dream come true. This summer really changed my life and allowed me to learn so much about a cause so dear to my heart. Because my family’s roots are in Punjab, India – I care deeply about this issue. I have had the opportunity to really chase my wildest dreams because of my education. I know that there are so many young women in this world who can dream bigger dreams than me and accomplish those dreams – and education is the tool through which that happens.

Photo Courtesy of Amy K Photography

303: You are very open about how important your Sikh faith is to you. What does it mean to have your painting “The Kaur Values of Freedom, Justice, and Beauty” forever hanging in the University Memorial Center at the University of Colorado Boulder? What inspired the piece?

SS: It is so special to me. I really love art in all its forms. Painting for me has been a hobby since I was a very little girl. The painting “The Kaur Values of Freedom, Justice, and Beauty” represents so many important parts of my identity. I hope to inspire and promote self-love for all those who see it. In the artist statement of the piece, I write about how “beauty” and my experience in pageantry and modeling in addition to The Serenity Project are entangled with depictions of feminism, my passion for the First Amendment and religious freedom and my Sikh faith. “Beauty is more than looks. It is the ability for someone to pave the way of love for others to follow for many years onwards.” This quote on the painting is from page 473 of the Sikh’s Guru Granth Sahib written over 500 years ago. The hymn demonstrates that women ought to be cherished, valued and treated like the queens they are in a society that so often downplays and neglects the value that women hold.

Photo Courtesy of Serene Singh

303: You pushed through a lot of boundaries in becoming the first female student to receive the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship from CU and also the first Sikh woman scholar in the entire history of the United States. What was your reaction when you found out about these monumental firsts?

SS: AHHH!!! Well, like most things in life… it took many, many strong empowered women before me who got close or pushed the needle a bit further for me to ultimately be able to give this interview today. What I find really beautiful about the “first” idea is that it presents an opportunity to dream, for young people reading this story or are passionate about the Rhodes Scholarship. These types of stories really challenge stereotypes – what should a Rhodes Scholar look like? What story should they have? What school should the Scholar have gone to? All of these things, I myself worried I didn’t fit what my peers told me would be for the scholarship. It can get to your head and it can make anyone doubt themselves – that is what this “first” story can hopefully counter. You can, and here is proof that someone like you can. In being 100% myself, I challenged some stereotypes that exist and hopefully inspired other young people to continue to do that in every aspect of their life – whether it be for the Rhodes Scholarship or something else.

Photo Courtesy of Glen Asakawa

303: Who or what inspires you to study criminology and criminal justice and evidence-based social intervention and policy evaluation at your upcoming time at Oxford?

SS: I am inspired to pursue a Masters in Criminology and Criminal Justice as well as a Masters in Evidence-Based Social Intervention and Policy Evaluation at Oxford for many reasons. One of them is that I have a dream to end violence against all communities but particularly religious communities and women. This dream depends on challenging biases and uplifting oppressed voices. My American-centric studies limit my worldview of criminal justice in certain ways that I am excited about challenging. I am eager to learn about criminal justice issues impacting Sikhs and women, beyond what I know to be true personally. Also, learning how and why other communities are underserved is essential to my future career as a judge. To serve in positions that target broad issues like hate, I must contest my prejudices on topics like policing, which are influenced by personal experiences, rather than by analysis and theory. Moreover, I am interested to learn about whether or not “shaming” in criminology and policy actually translates into long-term positive results and if not, what can be changed so we center justice around love instead of shame. Studying Criminology and Criminal Justice at Oxford University gives me the knowledge, tools and resources to learn the issues, so I can courageously find solutions that protect all communities.

Photo by Glen Asakawa

303: Do you foresee the work you do with empowering young women and women of color, in particular, holding a substantial place in your future goals?

SS: Absolutely. I honestly never really think about the things I am involved in as “work.” For me, they are the opportunities in my life where I really feel like I am being myself and doing what I love most. I could not imagine my world without engaging in things like Student Government, girls’ education, women’s empowerment initiatives like the Serenity Project, bhangra dancing, diaspora organizations, speech and debate coaching, art, etc. All these things and the incredible people I have met through each of these unique adventures make me who I am.

I know that even in the UK, I will find ways to still plug-in and be a part of these initiatives and efforts back home and also bring a small slice of them with me to Oxford. These opportunities have changed my life in the best ways, brought me the most wonderful people and have given me the best memories during my last 21 years or so of life. I am certain they will for others, as well.