Marymount alumna uses pageantry to spread STEM awareness

Marymount alumna uses pageantry to spread STEM awareness

Kelsey Kirrene ’24 has always loved two very different things — rhinestones and robotics. She remembers her younger self as a ‘girly girl,’ but also a tinkerer who always built things. 

“I was always playing with Barbies. But I didn’t build my Barbie a dream house, I built her a rocket ship.”

Thanks to her natural curiosity and the influence of her mother, who was an engineer, Kirrene developed a keen interest in STEM. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, she became a systems engineer and project manager for a Southern California aerospace company. 

Marymount alumna uses pageantry to spread STEM awareness

It was after entering the workforce that she discovered pageantry. 

“Being a woman in STEM, I didn’t have a lot of female colleagues especially not around my age,” Kirrene said. “So as I was settling into the workplace, I really wanted to build a network of other women to call friends and to support each other. I didn’t perform very well in the first pageant I entered, but I had so much fun. It really pushed me outside my comfort zone and I made some amazing friends.”

By competing in pageants, she earned over $30,000 in scholarships that funded her doctoral studies in Marymount University’s Educational Leadership and Organizational Innovation (Ed.D.) program. 

“I was really drawn to the Marymount Ed.D. program because it was all online and it was really flexible, so it fit into my work schedule,” Kirrene explained. “While in the program I planned a wedding, got married, got pregnant and had my daughter three weeks before graduation. I was grateful for the program’s flexibility as I completed these personal milestones while also fulfilling my dream of becoming Dr. Kirrene.”

She continued to compete in pageants while enrolled at Marymount. In 2023, she won the Mrs California USA Earth pageant for married women.

“I was really drawn to the Mrs USA Earth organization because it’s very service-oriented and it has an environmental focus as well,” Kirrene shared. “Being a space engineer, I’ve used my year as Mrs. California to travel to schools and community groups to teach about the engineering design process. It’s been really rewarding to be an ambassador for women in space and share what it’s like to be an engineer with over 500 young people.”

Marymount alumna uses pageantry to spread STEM awareness

Now armed with a new doctorate, Kirrene plans to lay the groundwork for her nonprofit that supports STEM education. She credits Marymount’s Ed.D. program for giving her a foundational understanding of how to operate academic programs and how to be the best leader she can be.

“I have developed a program that I share with kids at schools and in Girl Scout troops called, ‘The Princess Program for Budding Engineers,’” Kirrene explained. “It’s a series of activities with a curriculum based on encouraging young girls to explore STEM topics. The whole idea is to teach them that an engineer is like a princess who can build her own castle.”

While Kirrene works to get her nonprofit off the ground, she is pouring her time and energy into motherhood, pageants and her Instagram blog, ‘Rhinestones and Robotics,’ which she uses to encourage others to be their most authentic selves. 

“I’m the systems engineer that wears sparkly heels and big pageant earrings to work,” Kirrene said. “It feels silly sometimes, but showing up as my authentic self has helped me contribute better ideas, be a better collaborator and be a better leader. I hope I can show others that being authentic and embracing your passions makes all the difference.”