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Setting Sights on Stars: Manju Bangalore Uses Her Miss Oregon USA Title to Inspire Young Brown Girls

Setting Sights on Stars: Manju Bangalore Uses Her Miss Oregon USA Title to Inspire Young Brown Girls

  • The 25-year-old Indian American physicist, actor, model, non-profit founder, and a determined future astronaut, says the work she does for her community is an internal calling.

Manju Bangalore wanted to be an astronaut since she was 4. A visit to the local air and space museum in Oregon planted the seed of desire in her. There she read about Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman to have been in space. “At the time I didn’t have the word for representation at the time, but just seeing someone who looks like me doing this incredible thing made me feel like I could do it,” the 25-year-old multi-hyphenate tells American Kahani. 

Now with a clear understanding of what it means to represent, Bangalore is a role model for young Brown girls, not just as a physicist and a future astronaut, but as a pageant title holder, actor, model, and non-profit founder. Always a high achiever, whether it was at school, college, in her career, or her extracurricular activities, Bangalore has always given it her best, and at times, pushed herself. She does it not because it looks good on the resume, but because it’s “an internal calling,” to do the work she’s doing, “whether it’s for myself or my community.”

This October, the young Indian American won the Miss Oregon USA 2023 title, which she describes as “the cherry on top,” as it gives her “a bit more platform” to do the work that she has been doing. She will represent her state at the 72nd Miss USA pageant next October at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada. She is also the first South Asian Sports Illustrated finalist. 

Growing up in Corvallis, Oregon, Bangalore didn’t grow up with any Indian American role models, especially South Indian American. “I had community members and family, but that was basically it,” she says. So she wants to make the most of the opportunity she now has, “along with a lot of brilliant Brown women,” to show younger Brown girls that “we can do anything we set our mind on, and that we are limitless in that way and we don’t have to confine to one box.”

The Changemaker

Bangalore started Operation Period at age 17 as a freshman in college. Her awareness of menstrual inequalities and the lack of organizations in her state that work toward it was confirmed by an encounter she had at a store. When Bangalore was buying pads for herself, she saw a woman in front of her, who couldn’t afford her menstrual products as her card got declined. So Manju footed her bill as well. 

But there was more there than just lending a helping hand. It was a sign that “something larger needs to happen than this moment or just the thought.” That’s how her first nonprofit was born. 

So far, Operation Period has distributed over 300,000 menstrual products across the world and has also conducted menstrual health education awareness events. “Now we are transitioning to create an institute to train the next generation of young people on how to organize for menstrual freedom in their communities — whether it is menstrual products distribution or addressing what incarcerated menstruators deal with or health administrators — just any of those demographics that are impacted by menstrual inequity.” 

Her goal is “to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities that I’ve had. Because I never think there’s a lack of talent, it’s always a lack of opportunities. So if we can address these root causes like access to menstrual products, then girls can achieve what they want to achieve.”

So far, Operation Period she founded has distributed over 300,000 menstrual products across the world and has also conducted menstrual health education awareness events.

She is also the founder of Painting with Parkinson’s, which she established in honor of her father, an artist, who has been battling the disease. The nonprofit organizes free classes and provides free painting kits to anyone affected by PD. “We believe that art has the power to heal,” she says on the website. “Because I believe everyone is an artist and should let that light shine.”

The Future Astronaut 

Bangalore graduated from the University of Oregon with a major in physics and a minor in math. While pursuing her undergraduate degree she did a google search on how to work at NASA and discovered that there’s an entire NASA internship portal. So she applied to over 100 internships. She was rejected by 99 of them. 

The one internship she got was at the Marshall NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. She then applied to and got accepted and got to work at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in 2016 at the end of the Obama administration. She did four more internships at NASA Johnson Space Center in the astronaut office working on the cockpit displays of spacecraft that will go back to the moon and then to Mars one day. Bangalore is currently enrolled in a postgraduate program with the International Institute of Astronomical Science. “[The school] hasn’t selected us by any means to go to space, but they are putting us through the training that’s necessary to one day go to space.”

See Also

The Pageant Title Holder

Bangalore has been participating in pageants since she was in her teens, including in Oregon Teen USA a couple of times. After aging out, she entered the Miss division. “This is my third time participating,” she says, her first time in the top 5. It’s been three months since she was crowned, and they have been “the best months” of her life. 

Her vast experience on the pageant stage has given her a unique perspective on what it takes to be a winner. “Pageants allow us to be our full selves,” she says. “A beauty pageant obviously has a component of outward appearance, but also in those seemingly beauty-oriented competitions, they are still looking at how poised you are, how confident on stage you are,” she said. “I was by no means the tiniest person on stage; I am curvier, and none of that was held against me.” In fact, she thinks it helped her. “It showed that I am confident in my body and who I am.” 

Then there’s the question section for those who reach the top 5, where one has to answer either a political, social, or economic question relevant to the time. There are also the women that she’s met along the way. “The women I have gotten to meet at this pageant have an inseparable bond,” she says. “Some of my best friends have come from pageants, and they are some of the most confident, beautiful women I know.”

Pageants are a confidence booster as well. “I think how people perceive you matters a little bit because all of us need some form of external validation.” But at the same time, this platform has helped her develop a thick skin, to face and filter out the detractors. Having learned that, she says she’s the “happiest” she’s ever been because she doesn’t hold those opinions to the same standard she holds herself to.

“I know that I am enough, I am beautiful and capable and worthy of all the things. So, if someone has something negative to say, they are entitled to that opinion, but I don’t have to consider it part of who I am.”

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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