Nursing student uses Miss Connecticut Teen USA platform to advocate for mental health, increase representation

Melina Khan, News Editor

For Nikitha Kikanamada, a sophomore nursing major at Quinnipiac University, the beginning of the spring semester is bittersweet, as it’s her last semester as the titleholder of Miss Connecticut Teen USA.

During her Miss Teen USA interview, Kikanamada wore a Sherwani, a traditional South Asian suit. (Contributed by Nikitha Kikanamada)

Kikanamada will pass down the title to the winner of Miss Connecticut Teen USA 2022 in April, after holding it since June 2021. She has used her platform as the first Indian-American titleholder to increase representation of her South Asian culture, as well as expanding her mental health advocacy.

After being diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2019, Kikanamada started an Instagram account called More for Myself, where she raises awareness for mental health issues. She also runs an account called The South Asian Segment, where she features the stories of people of South Asian descent to combat stereotypes.

“(Mental health issues are) not something that is talked about in South Asian households,” Kikanamada said. “So to be the face of change for those people who look like me, I’m just so honored.”

In November 2021, Kikanamada took her platform to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she competed in Miss Teen USA. While she did not place in the competition, Kikanamada said she enjoyed the opportunity to represent her home state.

“Even though I didn’t win or even place, I was able to share my story,” Kikanamada said. “And that, in itself, is an achievement.”

As she enters her first college semester that is not simultaneously preoccupied with preparations for her next pageant, Kikanamada said she is looking forward to continuing her education.

“I don’t know if I will be back yet as a Miss,” Kikanamada said. “I hope to, I really do, but it’s a lot. It’s mentally, physically and emotionally a lot. And I just want to focus on myself right now and my career.”

Despite juggling nursing school and preparing for pageants, Kikanamada said her professors have always been supportive and understanding of her situation.

“(Last semester) they were more than happy to accommodate me and everything that I’ve been doing,” Kikanamada said. “They seem very proud of me, which gives me a lot of support.”

Miss Connecticut Teen USA 2021 and Quinnipiac nursing student Nikitha Kikanamada (right) poses with Miss Teen USA 2021 Breanna Myles (left). (Contributed by Nikitha Kikanamada)

Professor of psychology Anne Eisbach taught Kikanamada in a child development psychology course during the fall. She said she enjoyed learning about Kikanamada’s efforts as titleholder. 

“It was clear to me that she was strongly committed to her responsibilities both as a student and a titleholder – and I was impressed with how she balanced both roles,” Eisbach said. “… As a professor, I always encourage my students to broaden their education beyond the classroom and so I was happy to support Nikitha as she was able to make this happen!”

Before being named Miss Connecticut Teen USA, Kikanamada also held the titles of Miss South Windsor Teen USA 2020 and Miss Teen India Connecticut 2018. She first entered the pageant industry at eight years old, when her mom enrolled her in modeling and acting classes.

“She always told me, ‘I just saw something in you,’” Kikanamada said. 

After modeling, acting and dancing for several years, Kikanamada entered pageants through the National American Miss organization, a program for girls ages 4-20. Through NAM, Kikanamada participated in competitions for preteen titles throughout the Northeast. 

In high school, Kikanamada went on to win Miss Teen India Connecticut, her first major pageant title. Kikanamada said her time as the titleholder for Miss Teen India Connecticut piqued her interest in the opportunity to represent her Indian heritage on a larger scale. 

“I was able to take my culture and my background and something I love, which is pageants, and in ways mix them into one, which was really amazing,” Kikanamada said.

In 2019, Kikanamada had another opportunity to represent her culture when she competed for Miss Connecticut Teen USA. After not placing in the competition, Kikanamada decided to move on from pageants and focus on finishing high school and pursuing college. Then, when she received a letter in the mail asking her to come back to compete in Miss Connecticut Teen USA 2020, she decided she wanted to give it one more shot.

“I wasn’t going to (compete again), I really wasn’t,” Kikanamada said. “I begged my mom to let me be coached — usually girls get coached for their local pageants, (but) I’ve never been coached before, until I reached out to the coaches that sponsored (the previous) year.”

Kikanamada joined KP Consulting, where she has multiple coaches that help her prepare for competitions.

“I love them so much,” Kikanamada said. “They truly just helped me be who I am today. They helped me find a purpose in my life.” 

Kaet Parent, one of Kikanamada’s coaches, said her preparation for Miss Connecticut Teen USA was challenging as it was plagued by uncertainty — the pageant was postponed multiple times due to the pandemic.

“Nikitha was on top of everything, no matter how frustrating anything was in terms of COVID impacting the dates being changed, a lot of uncertainty, she just remained diligent,” Parent said. “She had a goal and her goal was to win, and nothing was gonna get in her way.”

Beyond coaching, Parent said she has valued getting to know Kikanamada on a personal level, calling her “special and incredible.”

“Nikitha just has this fire inside of her that is so special,” Parent said. “… I think that is something that anyone around her, not even talking in the world of pageants, but anyone around her — friends or family professors — they see that and I think that is something that people latch onto.”