By Anna Grace Moore
The name “Julianne Abenjoa” is one of familiarity in Mountain Brook. The decorated and distinguished young woman, who is now a freshman at the College of William and Mary, has laid a foundation of success that she built through dedication and hard work.
The Mountain Brook High School alumna first heard about a scholarship program–the Distinguished Young Woman (DYW) program–through her ballet teacher, Angela Walker, a teacher at Birmingham Dance Theatre, which Julianne has called her “second home” since she was 5 years old. DYW, Julianne says, changed the trajectory of her life’s compass for the better.
“She introduced it to me as a scholarship organization for girls who are going into their senior year,” Julianne says of learning about DYW. “It’s formatted like a pageant, but it’s really a program that’s focused on getting young women the money they need to go to school. My mom signed me up, and I was a little reluctant [at first].”
Touring colleges and applying for scholarships can feel a little overwhelming. So, once Angela explained the scholarship appeal, Julianne was all ears.
As the months waned, Julianne knew her deadlines to choose where she’d earn her future degrees were drawing near. Finally, the summer before her senior year dawned on her, and she signed up to compete in the DYW of Jefferson County competition, which was held on July 17, 2021, at John Carroll Catholic High School in Birmingham. To her delight, Julianne won Miss Distinguished Young Woman of Jefferson County and $4,400 in scholarships.
“I went into it wanting to have a good time, trying to earn as much money as I could,” Julianne explains. “I ended up winning the title of Jefferson County DYW. I had no idea what a great path that would take me on. People were telling us, ‘Okay, Alabama’s program is in January. We’re going to get you ready.’ We had no idea what we were in for.”
Julianne says her favorite part about competing wasn’t actually winning so much as competing allowed her to befriend so many different young women–girls she’s had the privilege to see graduate and go to college, join sororities and more.
“I got to meet girls from other schools–people who I wouldn’t have otherwise met.”
Just mere months later, Julianne was whisked down to Montgomery in January 2022, where she competed with 45 other young women for the DYW state title.
This competition was held during a state-wide spike during the pandemic, so all of the contestants quarantined and were tested ahead of time. Despite wearing masks and competing with restrictions, “all 45 girls were able to go down there and represent their counties. We got to stay with a host family, and they were really kind. It was a really fun week. I had no idea where most of the counties in Alabama were. I got to learn so much.”
Julianne won Miss Distinguished Young Woman of Alabama and admits the honor to represent such talented young women from across the state meant more to her than winning first place.
Julianne’s journey doesn’t stop in the state’s capital, however. From June 23-25, 2022, she and 49 other young women–representing all 50 states–competed in the national DYW competition, of which Julianne took home the title of first runner-up and $20,000 in scholarship money.
“It was amazing. I genuinely did my best, worked hard and tried to soak it all in. By the end of the [competition], I felt that I had done that. I was proud of myself, regardless. It was really exciting to be in a room with 50 amazingly talented, super smart young women. To be named first runner-up out of all of them was super exhilarating.”
When asked how DYW changed her life, Julianne could not say enough positive things about the program. “I can’t even imagine my life without DYW because I’ve met so many wonderful people. I have learned so much. Something you learn about DYW is that it never leaves you.”
The friendships she’s made, Julianne says, will last the test of time. The near $35,000 in scholarship money she’s won, however, will go towards paying her tuition at William and Mary.
Aside from her many distinctions and awards, Julianne says she’s had to redefine what success truly means to her.
“A lot of the things I love to do are achievement-oriented,” she explains. “Success isn’t necessarily a trophy or a sum that you win. I’ve had to learn to redefine success as setting goals for myself and being able to achieve those goals. That doesn’t always mean I’m winning first place. You can’t always measure success by tangible things.”
Success, Julianne admits, should instead be measured by the size of one’s heart and the love one has for giving back to the community that has invested into her.
“My grandmother has the most servant-like heart,” Julianne says. “When my mom and dad were working, she would help raise me. She’s one of my biggest role models. I’ve always seen her servant’s heart at work in our community. Having a servant’s heart means listening to the needs of those around you–being able to be there for people through serving them.”
It’s this love of community that Julianne says she has to work on constantly–to model humility and become the best version of herself. These emotions are not ones that always come naturally, so she practices expressing herself through her love of dancing–one thing Julianne’s grandmother, especially, believes has the power to move people.
“[Dance] is my comfort. It is my creative outlet,” Julianne explains. “I really love the idea of being able to tell a story. We are actors first–dancers second. I love being able to make an audience member feel something through movement.”
It’s this exact experience that Julianne says she wants to pursue for the rest of her life; although, Julianne says she wants to major in pre-med, neuroscience, specifically. She says dancing will always be her first love, but like her grandmother, she wants to put her passion to serve other people as the focus of her career. Both dancing and medicine, she explains, are ways of evoking emotion and healing in those we call dear.
Through a firm footing in hard work and passion and a desire to evolve, Julianne will never stop becoming better than she was yesterday. She believes that her village–her parents, grandmother, DYW and more–have all played an important role in her success story.
Everyone’s story, she says, has a trajectory that points in the direction of what one is most passionate about. For Julianne, that’s giving back to Mountain Brook–the community and people who’ve helped shape her into who she is today.