FORT BELVOIR, Va. –
Being Mrs. Florida isn’t about the crown and satin sash for Andrea Forester. She’s driven instead by dreams of success and prosperity, but not for herself.
The Defense Logistics Agency CENTCOM & SOCOM employee applied for the Mrs. U.S. Continental pageant in 2019 with hopes of reaching more girls and women like those she’s helped shepherd toward economic independence and personal growth through nonprofits like Dress for Success since she married an Army officer in 2014.
“I realized that a lot of military spouses didn’t have much luck finding jobs and some didn’t have the resources to build a resume or take classes to get job skills or personal skills when it came to finance,” she said.
Volunteering to run clothing drives and run mock job interviews opened Forester’s eyes to the power of positive influence and connected her with women who told her pageantry could help expand her reach to more women and other nonprofits. But as a daughter of immigrant parents who she said raised her in humble ways, Forester initially resisted.
“It was out of my comfort zone to stand up and showcase myself,” she said, admitting she also believed the stereotype that pageants were for fair-skinned, all-American girls with pretty faces. “And I didn’t feel I looked the part.”
A yearning to support more women eventually pushed Forester past her inhibitions, and in a virtual pageant held in August, judges crowned her Mrs. Florida. She will compete June 10-12 for the Mrs. U.S. Continental title.
God, family and education
According to its website, the pageant promotes intelligence, integrity, strong moral values and inner beauty, all characteristics her parents worked to cultivate in their five children. Forester’s mom moved to New York from Ireland at 19 and worked three jobs to survive. Her dad immigrated from the Philippines to Utah at 9. The two met when he attended West Point.
“They didn’t have a whole lot. God, family and education were the top three things for them, and we had a strict household,” she said, recounting nights her dad spent taking workshop classes to build toys for her and her siblings. They’d eat ramen for weeks so one of them could receive a special birthday gift.
Being a wife and mother of two has helped Forester recognize the sacrifices her parents made to ensure their children had opportunities they didn’t in their native countries. That she and her brothers and sisters all have college degrees and thriving careers is a reflection of how they were raised, she said.
Between her work as a program manager for DLA CENTCOM & SOCOM’s Business Management Office, volunteering and parenting, Forester is also earning a doctorate of business administration in project management.
“I really do believe that if you put the work and effort in, whatever you want to achieve, you can do it,” she said.
Forester completed dual masters’ degrees in business administration and homeland security by the time she turned 24 – she’s now 34 – then started her federal career as a GS-5 research assistant in the Naval Postgraduate School’s Research and Sponsored Programs Office. Winning the Mrs. U.S. Continental title would require her to travel throughout the nation to promote nonprofits such as Dress for Success and EmpowHERment, but Forester said she loves her job and plans to continue federal service.
Making a difference
Since becoming Mrs. Florida, she’s become a board member of EmpowHERment and has been featured as a guest speaker on topics like women’s mental health and financial independence. She’s also used her budgeting experience with the government to help the founder of EmpowHERment create a master budget and strategy.
“I feel like you can always donate and do food drives through the church or other organizations, but you’re probably not going to see where that support goes in the same way you do when you’re connected to a nonprofit that provides local resources that are desperately needed,” she said.
Forester also sponsors children’s education through the Philippines Humanitarian Nonprofit established by her paternal grandmother. Girls in the part of the Philippines her family is from often forfeit educational opportunities to the oldest son.
“Donations help provide school supplies for young girls and pay school tuition fees for those who eventually go to college,” she said. “It makes such a big difference because it’s very hard for girls there to make something of themselves, and education is an important part of opening doors.”
Volunteering also gives Forester the chance to be an example for her 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son and shows them pageantry isn’t all about glamour. She involves the entire family in fundraising events and admitted her daughter thinks the glittery Mrs. Florida crown is hers.
“She lives on Disney princesses right now, so whenever I have to do photos or get dressed up she’ll get dressed with me,” she said. “But most of the time she sees me running around in my no-makeup mom bun, sunglasses and flipflops.”
Pageantry, Forester said she’s discovered, is about empowering modern-day women and showcasing diversity.
“You have stay-at-home moms, people in the medical field, teachers, former military; we’re all different ages, ethnicities and religions,” she said of her fellow contestants. “There’s definitely not a cookie-cutter version of what a woman should be, and I’ve realized I really can do this; it’s not as intimidating as I once thought.”
To those who still believe pageantry is degrading to women, Forester points out that a previous Mrs. U.S. Continental was a 50-year-old fitness instructor who championed dyslexia and beat a roomful of 20-somethings without a single stretchmark.
Losing the national title would be only a minor disappointment, Forester said. She’d still push herself to be a better employee, better student, better wife and better mom.
“And it won’t stop me from making a difference in my local community, which was my original intent for getting into pageantry in the first place,” she said. “It’s never been about me; it’s about helping other women achieve their personal goals.”