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Stepping Up

Facing the challenges of serious illness led Alyssa Paulsen ’14 to consider possibilities she never would have dreamed.


In high school Alyssa Paulsen ’14 came to appreciate days without pain. Once an active volleyball and softball player, she found herself sidelined with fatigue, joint pain, and severe headaches. After a year of unexplained symptoms, Alyssa was diagnosed with Lyme disease, and began what doctors said would be a three-year recovery.

Looking to fill the sports void, Alyssa volunteered to help with community service projects such as Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree, World Vision’s 30-hour Famine, and Lyme disease awareness events.

Still healing when she arrived at Wheaton as an applied health science major, Alyssa taught fitness classes and tried the cheerleading club. She also joined the Haiti-Wheaton Partnership, traveling to Haiti in 2012.

“What we saw there was hell on earth. I’ve never struggled with depression, but I couldn’t pick myself up after returning. I started praying and fasting, asking the Lord for direction,” she says.

The answer was not what she anticipated. She felt led to enter the USA Ambassador Pageant, a charity-driven organization that places emphasis on community service.

Dr. Peter Walters, professor of applied health science, encouraged her to get involved, reminding her, “Every walk of life can be a mission field.”

Alyssa applied and received word through the mail that she’d won the Miss Illinois title based on her application and phone interview. Several months later she traveled to Tampa and won the national competition.

As the 2012 Miss USA Ambassador, she spent her junior year traveling the country every third week, speaking in high schools and at charity events, and helping raise funds and awareness for illnesses such as breast cancer, diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and ovarian cancer.

Deeply affected by the stories of survivors, she was constantly reminded of life’s fragility. She also developed a passion for mentoring young girls, encouraging them with a message about their inherent value and the fleeting nature of physical beauty.

Now in her senior year, Alyssa enjoys having a “normal” college routine—but also hopes to contribute by working with local charities and continuing to speak in public schools and give chapel talks at Christian schools.

Once terrified of public speaking, she now looks forward to each event. These opportunities have shifted her focus from pre-med to communications courses, and as a result, she’s now considering a career as a television health reporter.

For his part, mentor Dr. Walters believes the pageant experience not only helped Alyssa clarify her goals for the future, but also helped her develop courage, as well as boldness for Christ.

Still affected by Lyme disease, Alyssa has some lingering hip pain but is grateful that she healed much faster than doctors predicted.

“I think when you’ve had chronic pain,” she says, “you become more aware that every day is a gift and blessing.”

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