Aleksandra Derikonja, a junior economics major is fluent in Serbian, modeled at Couture Fashion Week in New York City and was just crowned Miss Maine United States. And no, you can’t have her number.

“I’ve always been taught to be modest. That’s the reason I hate talking about myself,” said Derikonja, 20.

Derikonja was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia three years before the Bosnian War broke out 1992. The war forced Derikonja and her mother, Nevenka Simanic, to move in with her grandparents in Montenegro, a neighboring country. None of her family died in the war, but she has friends who lost family members.

She moved frequently throughout her childhood, attending nine schools before the eighth grade.

Derikonja and her mother tried moving back to Bosnia in 2000, but too much had changed. Another family had taken up residence in their old apartment, which was owned by her grandfather. “You didn’t feel like you belong here,” she said.  “It wasn’t the same.”

They moved back to Montenegro after a year and stayed there for another year more before relocating again, this time across the Atlantic.

Derikonja and her mother moved to America through a refugee organization, taking residence in Portland. Derikonja had an aunt and three older cousins who lived in Portland at the time.

Derikonja didn’t begin speaking English regularly until she came to Maine and recalled how difficult the move was on her. She said she cried herself to sleep at night for the first two months after coming to Maine. “I wanted to go to home so bad.” She said it was hard leaving her large extended family behind and all of her friends. She remembers calling up her friends and telling them she wanted go back. “I had a really hard time in the beginning,” she said.

“When you don’t know the language, I would go to school and feel out of place,” said Derikonja. “As time goes on you get used to the language and things get easier.”

She said her older cousins and community members helped her adjust to living in the United States. “We really have a tight Serbian community here in Portland,” she said.

She graduated from Portland High School in 2007 before enrolling at USM. She’s the president of the Multicultural Student Organization here at USM.

Derikonja said she used to argue often with her mother, whom she said tried raising her very strictly. She said she now better understands what her mother has done for her and that her mother moved to Maine “completely for [her] sake.”

“It’s amazing how much that woman has done for me,” said Derikonja, who said she strives to be like her mother. “She’s always there. I’m very, very grateful to have her.”

Her mother works as a tailor for Jill McGowen, a clothing designer in Portland who gave Derikonja her first modeling experience. Derikonja had her first photo shoot for McGowen at age 14 and said she fell in love with being in front of a camera. She has modeled twice a year for McGowen ever since.

She recalled pretending to be a model even as a young girl. “I remember being 4 or 5 and putting her heels on and wrapping myself in fabric and walking around,” said Derikonja, smiling.

At 5’10”, Derikonja said people have told her she has potential to be a model because of her height. She said she wanted to move down to New York City before finishing college. “My mom has been completely against that,” she said, since her mother insisted she get a college degree first to have something to fall back on.

Although initially averse to staying in school, she said she’s glad she listened.

Derikonja didn’t originally have any desire to enter pageants; she got into it by chance. “The whole pageantry world is different from the past modeling I’ve done,” she said.

Derikonja said she even used to scoff at pageant contestants, especially for their teary-eyed acceptance speeches.

She won Maine’s Top Model Competition this past September, and part of the prize package included a “pageant coach” for Miss Maine USA. However, she didn’t place in the top five and didn’t plan on doing any more pageants.

Then three days before the Miss Maine United States competition in March, she decided to enter the pageant. To her surprise, she ended up winning. “I didn’t even think I was going to win,” she said. “I actually got teary-eyed.”

Now she’s going to the Miss United States Pageant this July in Las Vegas. Her platform is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Pageant contestants choose an organization or cause they support for their platform.

Derikonja said she wants to go to grad school after she graduates but might take a year off to move to New York City or Miami and see if she can make it as a model. She said her mom would fully support her and might even follow her down.

“If I could, I’d do it for the rest of my life,” she said of modeling. “With nationals coming up in July, you never know who you’re going to meet.”

She’s hoping to graduate next May but shied away from saying for sure. “I never plan ahead,” she said. “I take it day by day. I try to take life as it comes to me.

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