Grace Stanke Never Imagined a Nuclear Engineer Winning the Miss America Crown — Until She Did It

The 20-year-old University of Wisconsin student spoke with PEOPLE as she prepares to promote "all forms of clean energy" during her reign as Miss America 2023

After Miss Wisconsin Grace Stanke was crowned Miss America 2023 on Thursday, the nuclear engineering student was thrilled to "nerd out" with PEOPLE about her mission for the coming year.

"I nerd out when it comes to nuclear things," she said in an interview Friday as she prepares to promote "all forms of clean energy" during her reign.

"I would've never heard of — or imagined — a Miss America being a nuclear engineer," she said after winning the crown at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., succeeding Emma Broyles, who was the first Korean American and first Miss Alaska to win the title.

After getting involved with the Miss America Organization at age 13, Stanke, who's now 20, said she gained skills and confidence that allowed her to conquer fears that once left her "struggling to perform" when playing violin as a kid at local music contests.

On Thursday, she impressed the judges with a classical violin performance during the talent portion of the competition — and later told PEOPLE that playing the instrument not only makes her more well-rounded on stage, it's also helped her as a nuclear engineer.

Miss Wisconsin Grace Stake
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"My violin has allowed me to come up with creative solutions to some really unusual engineering problems," the University of Wisconsin student said.

As Miss America, Stanke plans to make her passion for zero-carbon energy her platform. "I'm a big fan," she told PEOPLE. "This industry has so much to offer and I know that zero-carbon energy has so much to offer to the world."

Nuclear energy "is safe and effective," Stanke continued, adding that it's considered "one of the safest forms of power" available.

Miss Wisconsin Grace Stake
Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock

She's particularly excited about what lies ahead for nuclear fusion following the recent breakthrough in California, which was announced Dec. 13, the very day she interviewed with the Miss America judges.

The news offered her an "exciting" opportunity to discuss her passion and show off her knowledge on the topic.

Miss Wisconsin Grace Stake
Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock

"It goes to show that this organization is promoting women pursuing so many different backgrounds and different things," she said of the well-timed moment.

But Stanke does not believe that women should put themselves in a single box. "I firmly believe that every single woman has the ability to have multiple identities and multiple personality traits," she said.

In addition to her Miss America title, nuclear engineering background and violin skills, Stanke is also a competitive water skier on her school's Division 1 team.

Now that she's earned approximately $70,000 in scholarships during the six years she's been involved with Miss America, she told PEOPLE, "grad school is an option."

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock (13669976ay) Miss Wisconsin 2022 Grace Stanke pauses on the red carpet during the Miss America competition at the Mohegan Sun casino, in Uncasville, Conn Miss America, Uncasville, United States - 15 Dec 2022
Steven Senne/AP/Shutterstock

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Stanke hopes more young women see the potential to make their dreams come true via the Miss America Organization.

"They are providing $5 million in scholarships to women all across the country every year," she told PEOPLE. "That is the power of this organization."

Competing, she added, is "one of the best decisions I've ever made."

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