By Bill Murphy
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MARTA Strzyzewski prepares for the talent portion of the 2001 Miss America pageant by practicing on one of the Steinway grand pianos at Washburn Piano Co. in Hoffmantown Shopping Center. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
Marta, a student intern in Computational Initiatives Dept. 15311, recently won the 2001 Miss New Mexico pageant. That means she'll be competing for the Miss America title in Atlantic City this September (it is televised on Sept. 22). As her talent, she'll be playing the piano, a demanding Chopin piece called the "Revolutionary Etude."
Marta (her last name is pronounced shtra-ZHEF-ski) was born in Warsaw. She came to Roswell in 1984 at age six. Her father was active in the Solidarity Movement, working shoulder to shoulder with Lech Walesa and others to restore democracy and economic prosperity to the beleaguered Eastern European nation. When the Soviets and their Polish proxies clamped down on the increasingly popular and effective Solidarity Movement in the early 1980s, Marta's parents decided it was time to escape the repressive regime.
Marta's dad escaped to the US first while her mom waited to give birth to Marta's brother before flying overseas. Unfortunately, martial law was imposed a few days after her father left, and the family ended up being separated for two years. Her dad found a job in Roswell first working at St. Mary's Hospital and then settling at the TMC bus manufacturing plant. After the borders reopened in Poland, her mother, brother, and Marta were reunited with her father, thanks to a lot of help from his TMC coworkers and Sen. Jeff Bingaman's office.
Dad 'needed freedom'
"He [her father] didn't want us to be unsafe. And he needed the freedom," says Marta, with just a hint of an accent that suggests English wasn't, after all, her first language.
Marta says her parents have never looked back. "They're always really happy that they actually live here. Even when they go back -- the conditions are a lot better and Poland is growing economically and becoming a better country -- but even when they get to go back and visit they're still so happy to come back home to America."
As for Marta, she feels like a native New Mexican. "I started kindergarten here in the US. I grew up in Roswell, and all my friends were there."
After graduating from Roswell High School, where she was an honors student "involved in every school club imaginable," Marta faced the same challenge that every good student faces: where to go to college. She applied to a number of schools both in state and elsewhere, including, on a whim, the New Mexico Military Institute in her hometown. (NMMI offers a junior college program in addition to its better-known high school program.)
"I just wanted to see if I could get into a military school. I thought it would be helpful in case I decided to go to the Air Force Academy. When I got in [to NMMI] on a full ride, I said, 'Wow, this is absolutely incredible.' "
That full scholarship -- and a desire not to be a financial burden on her family -- counted for a lot in Marta's decision to don a cadet's uniform and go to a military school. She's glad she did. "It was a blast. I had a great time. I made so many friends and got such a good education."
Marta, who has decided on a career in neurological research, completed her basics (calculus, English, and other subjects) during two years at NMMI, before transferring to the University of New Mexico, where she graduated in May with a degree in biology.
Her original intent was to go on to med school, but along the way, she "fell in love with lab work and research" and decided to focus her education in that direction. (As a result of volunteer work at Carrie Tingley Children's Hospital, she's become particularly interested in research aimed at spurring regrowth of neurons, with the hope that someday many victims of paralysis may be able to walk again.)
Though they're Americans through and through, Marta's parents brought a bit of Old World sophistication to Roswell. Marta's mom owns the "Taste of Europe" restaurant there, and then, of course, there was the piano, which had a special meaning for the family.
"My mom loved the piano, but she never got the opportunity to play, because in Poland everything was so expensive. It meant a lot to her to give her kids an opportunity she never had."
Marta began piano lessons at age seven, and took dance lessons as well. She underwent surgery for scoliosis at age 12, and although she recovered quickly, her flexibility was never again quite what it should be, and she gave up dance at about age 15 to concentrate exclusively on the piano.
Marta first forayed into the pageant world not long after her back surgery. As she tells it, her mother thought she needed to get involved in something that would help her overcome her natural shyness and boost her self-confidence. The pageant track did the trick. "It really helped a lot," she says.
Not that her mom was a stage mother or anything. "Not at all. I mean, she started me in it. She said, 'Whatever you want to do, you do; if you don't want to do it, you don't have to.' She was like that with my dancing and piano, too."
As a young teen, Marta competed in Cinderella pageants, a sort of warm-up for Miss America for younger girls. Ultimately, she finished in the top 10 in the teen category of the International Cinderella pageant in Oklahoma City, and then competed in 1998 for the Miss New Mexico title. She stayed out of the pageant for a couple of years, before making a grand comeback to win the state crown this year.
As a very smart young woman with ambitions to earn a doctorate in a hard science, how does she feel about participating in a beauty pageant?
"I don't look at it that way," Marta says. "I understand that some people look at the Miss America competition and think of it as a beauty pageant. If you don't know about something, you tend to make judgments. If I were able to talk to someone and tell them what it's about, it would make more sense to them."
Important points she'd make to skeptics:
A Miss America is expected to have a cause, also known as a platform, and Marta's seems a natural: "Let Freedom Ring: Establishing U.S. Citizenship." Through her platform, she plans to champion the blessings of living in a free society and help refugees and immigrants from other countries feel welcome and at home in America. This issue has a special meaning for someone whose family had experienced life in a totalitarian regime.
Marta says she isn't going to Atlantic City with any overwhelming sense of destiny.
"I'm not going there thinking that I'm going to win, because, with 50 other women who are just as qualified, I see this as more of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I plan on having a wonderful time while I'm there."
In the meantime, Marta plans to continue working on her platform-related volunteer projects, which she has been doing with Catholic Charities and at Sen. Bingaman's office.
And, she intends to practice that Chopin piece fervently every day between now and September.
Last modified: July 26, 2001
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