One Lieutenant’s Journey from USAFA to Miss Colorado to Harvard

  • Published
  • By Katie Scott
  • Air Force Institute of Technology

From a young age, U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Madison Marsh had a love of science and a dream to be a pilot and astronaut.  Her parents encouraged her dreams, sending her to Space Camp when she was 13 years old where she met astronauts and fighter pilots.  Around that time, she learned about the United States Air Force Academy. At 15 years old, she started flying lessons earning her pilot’s license two years later and then began to work towards her goal of becoming a cadet. 

“I heard it was a great institution to not only get a stellar undergraduate education but also put you on the track to become a pilot or maybe an astronaut,” said Marsh. “So that's what sparked my interest to apply to USAFA.”

Marsh studied physics with a focus in astronomy at USAFA. She interned with NASA researching gamma ray bursts and worked with the Etelman Observatory in the U.S. Virgin Islands where she conducted limiting magnitude studies with the Virgin Islands Robotic Telescope. 

While at USAFA, Marsh decided she would try competing in pageants as an extracurricular activity.

“As a freshman at the Academy, you might have a hard time finding your identity in a very new and challenging environment,” said Marsh.  “My cousin had competed in pageants for a long time, and one of the big things about it that I love is the community service aspect and the focus on public speaking.”

Three years later, she was crowned Miss Colorado. 

“It was very surreal,” said Marsh. “I believe I'm the first active duty officer from any branch to represent at the national level of the Miss America organization.”

There are many preconceived notions and stereotypes about beauty pageants and their contestants, but Marsh is quick to point out the overlap in core values between the military and the pageant organization she has joined.

“The Miss America organization that I'm a part of now is all focused on what you can provide for the community through your social impact, making sure that you have a stellar resume, that you're good at public speaking, that you can connect with people and are empowered to lead in other ways that's not just about you,” said Marsh.

As Miss Colorado, Marsh enjoys talking with other young girls about being a pilot and serving in the military and sees it as an opportunity to dispel stereotypes that exist about military women.

“It’s an awesome experience to bring both sides of the favorite parts of my life together and hopefully make a difference for others to be able to realize that you don't have to limit yourself,” said Marsh.  “In the military, it's an open space to really lead in the way that you want to lead - in and out of uniform. I felt like pageants, and specifically winning Miss Colorado, was a way to truly exemplify that and to set the tone to help make other people feel more comfortable finding what means most to them.”

In early 2024, Marsh will compete for the Miss America crown. She will participate in several phases of competition including public interview, private interview, talent, social impact pitch, evening gown and fitness.

“Pageants are changing and one of the ways is in what being physically fit means to women,” said Marsh.  “For me, it's great because I need to stay physically fit and in the gym for the military, so it already coincides with pageant training.”

The traditional talent portion of the competition has also changed to include a monologue option called “Her Story”.

“I'm not conventionally talented - I cannot sing or dance,” said Marsh. “I gave a monologue about my very first solo flight at the age of 16 and how that shaped some of the fundamental leadership characteristics that I got to carry through into USAFA and then into my adult professional life.”

Pageant contestants must have a community service initiative that they promote during their state year and could move to a national level if they were to win. For Marsh, that is the Whitney Marsh Foundation that she started with her father and younger sister in honor of her mother to raise awareness of pancreatic cancer early detection and research funding.

“My mom was a huge runner, even when she was going through chemotherapy treatments,” said Marsh. “When we talked about ways to raise money, we wanted it to remember who my mom was and not what cancer had made her. So we started the Whitney Marsh Foundation and specifically hosted a 5K and 10K run every year based out of our hometown in Fort Smith, Arkansas.”

Since starting the Foundation in 2018, the runs have earned over a quarter of a million dollars.  The money is used to help fund pancreatic cancer research and to educate doctors and the public.

“We've put a lot of money back into our town to bring doctors from the MD Anderson Cancer Center to educate our physicians on what pancreatic cancer looks like and different ways that we can detect it early,” said Marsh. “This past year, we opened up a program to start funding families in our town that are below the poverty line and are at risk for pancreatic cancer. And hopefully this year as we get more money, we'll be able to expand that to the more general population of Arkansas to get more people detected early so we stop falling in this pitfall of late detection, which is why we have such a low, low survival rate.”

Upon graduation from USAFA and commissioning into the Air Force, Marsh received a pilot slot and is currently determining the career opportunities and personal projects she wants to pursue.

“Towards the end of my time at USAFA, I started to realize that my bigger passions were in policy making and cancer research so that's why I ended up at the Kennedy School,” said Marsh.

In September, Marsh started a two-year master’s degree program in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School through the Air Force Institute of Technology’s Civilian Institution Programs.  While in Massachusetts, she will also work with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and a professor from the Harvard Medical School to research early detection of pancreatic cancer.

“I lost my mom about five years ago to pancreatic cancer and I started a nonprofit almost immediately afterwards with my family to raise money and awareness of pancreatic cancer for people in our town,” said Marsh.  “I'm now trying to take the next step and use my studies from the Kennedy School to learn about the inner workings and the difficulties of what policy really looks like. Issues like economic environments and other social pressures that might be inhibiting our ability to implement cancer policies that can affect all Americans.”

Marsh’s career goals may have changed from when she entered USAFA as a teenager, but her desire to serve in the military did not waiver.

“I don’t want to be an astronaut anymore, so now I'm here for the people,” said Marsh. “I love having the opportunity to not only serve in my uniform but being surrounded by a group of people that also want to serve outside of the uniform through volunteering and community service.”

Editor’s Note: Second Lt. Marsh will be competing for the Miss America crown on Jan. 14, 2024, in Orlando, Fla.