A scholarship and a sash

Rice Scholar Marlena Collins doubles as Miss National Peanut Festival

Marlena Collins’ rural childhood in South Georgia did not seem remarkable at the time. She lived on a family farm there, surrounded by peanut fields. She took dance classes, volunteered at the local retirement home and spent lots of time with her grandmother, who lived on the same acreage.

Each one of those actions blossomed for Collins, a freshman at Georgia State. She won a prestigious Rice Scholarship – given only to GSU students from Early County who express an interest in gerontology.

Only two months into the culture shock of a new life on the downtown Atlanta campus, Collins reaped another unusual prize from her rural upbringing: She was crowned Miss National Peanut Festival.

With sash and crown, she will also carry her Georgia State connections to 160 public appearances over the next year to promote one of the state’s largest cash crops and a $1 billion industry. Miss National Peanut Festival has been a fixture since 1938 on a program that included Dr. George Washington Carver.

Collins tells her story in a friendly drawl that, even on a multilingual campus, sounds distinct.

“I knew when I came to Georgia State, I would see something new every day,” she said. “I hear a new story, and diversity is a huge thing for me because I’ve been around many of the same type of people most of my life. I knew at Georgia State I could go on any path I wanted.”

GSU’s diversity is most often represented by the 150-plus countries in the student body; Collins highlights the statewide reach of GSU, which draws students from all 159 Georgia counties. “Where I live is so small, it doesn’t even exist on GPS,” she said.

To boost the economy and preserve the culture of Early County (population 13,000), Charles and Catherine Rice set up scholarship funding through the Georgia State University Foundation. Growing up in Early County, Charles Rice (B.B.A., 1965) learned the value of hard work. He later channeled that into creating Atlanta-based Barton Protective Services, one of the largest contract security service firms in the country.

The scholarship prepares the brightest students in Early County to assist senior citizens there. It also provides a study abroad experience, computer equipment, professional association fees and more.

The Rice Scholarships have sparked greater interest across GSU in the field of elder care, said Gerontology Institute Director Elisabeth Burgess.

“Because of the attention that the Rices brought, we’ve gone from having only a handful of undergrads to now about two dozen who are pursuing certificates and are really involved in outreach activities,” she said. “It’s a growth field, because in 2011 the first wave of baby boomers hit 65.”

Typically, students like the Rice Scholars are motivated to enter the field by at least one elderly family member. “Because people are living longer, college students expect their grandparents to be at their graduations and weddings, and have long shared lives with them,” Burgess said.

Marlena Collins feels as if the Rices designed their gift to uniquely fit her.

“If there was a poster child for this scholarship, it would be me,” she said. “Not only do I live in the area and love this major, but Georgia State was the only college I applied to – for early acceptance.”

Long before she heard about gerontology, she was building deep connections with her maternal grandmother. From her, Collins learned about art history, fine jewelry and their genealogy. With her, she traveled to Australia, Hawaii and all around the Southeast.

“My grandmother can’t travel that easily now because airlines and hotels aren’t accommodating enough,” Collins said. “At GSU, I was so excited to see the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality because I want to work in the tourism market to make it more elder friendly. I wouldn’t mind managing a resort for the elderly or even a cruise ship that caters to the more than 77 million [baby boomers]who are starting to reach retirement.”

Shortly before Collins left for GSU, her scholarship’s academic requirement became even more personal when her grandmother, now 84, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“It’s really opened up my eyes to how gerontology helps people understand what it’s like to grow old and help maintain quality of life,” Collins said. “One of her favorite quotes was from John Keats: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever,’ and I try to remember that when I think of her.”

Collins’ grandmother was a lifelong teacher who helped establish Southwest Georgia Academy, the Early County school where Collins attended, and won awards for extemporaneous speaking.

This skill, more than beauty, helped her win nearly $10,000 in other scholarships, in addition to the $40,000 she earned through the Rice Scholarship. From a bowl on stage, pageant contestants must pick a random topic – such as privacy or animal cruelty – and speak about it with poise and authority.

“You do have to walk around in a pretty gown, but my thing is to focus on the interview, essay writing and knowledge,” said Collins, whose pageant talent is ballet en pointe.

“It’s so important to have the personality, and be good at communicating, because on stage the judges are going to see how well you answer under pressure, and when you win a title you are always in the public eye.”

Her grandmother’s side of the family owned the 1,400 acres that Collins grew up on, a 3-½ hour drive south of Atlanta. She marked the seasons by the sounds and sights outside her window. In spring came the tilling and planting of peanut plants. After 200 frost-free days came the digging and picking. With a pressure cooker, her father fixes her favorite snack: fresh boiled peanuts.

“Where I’m from, peanuts are not just a way of making a living,” Collins said. “They are a way of life.”

After she won Miss Early County Peanut, Collins she knew the national title would be tough to crack. Even though Georgia is the country’s largest peanut producer, she was the only contestant against 45 from Florida and Alabama. The last Georgia winner was in 1971.

In her interview, judges honed in on her home amid the peanut fields and interest in gerontology. She tried hard to come across as someone who appreciated the past while looking to the future.

When Collins won, the Early County News ran a large photo of her on the front page. “It was like my whole county won the crown,” she said.

During most weekends the remainder of her freshman year, Collins will travel to extol the virtues of her favorite legume.

Peanuts, she said, provide products from imitation fireplace logs and laundry detergent to good old sandwiches (“Crunchy, not creamy,” she advises. “And don’t let jelly ruin it.”) These products are the modern examples of the versatility promoted by George Washington Carver.

Wherever she speaks, Collins’ connections to Georgia State are mentioned. She’ll give up her peanut crown next year, but hold fast to the honor of her academic funding, she said with a smile. “I’m trademarked as a Rice Scholar.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424