Former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader and Miss New Mexico USA Jacqueline Johnson graduated from UNM this semester with a Bachelor of Arts in sociology. She started at UNM in 1992, but delayed finishing her education to compete in the Miss USA pageant, cheer, coach and start a family. In 2009, she decided she needed to complete her degree as a role model for her two daughters, ages 5 and 7.

Johnson said she dreamt of competing to be Miss USA since she was a little girl and entered her first pageant at age 9. She said Miss New Mexico USA "is a role model to young women across the state, and she is also a source of hope and encouragement for many."

"My biggest hope for the year I reigned as Miss New Mexico USA was to make a positive impact in someone's life. At the time, I was coaching a cheer and dance team at Wilson Middle School here in Albuquerque. The girls on my team sent me a care package in South Padre Island, where I was competing for Miss USA. I still have the envelope full of their letters. The excitement and sweet words in those letters forever changed me. I knew in that moment that I was an important role model in their young lives, and that feeling will stay with me always."

After another year at UNM, Johnson became a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader in 1996. Auditioning for that was even more intimidating than competing in the Miss USA pageant, she said. "Being a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The audition process alone is enough to scare anyone away… Getting through training camp and having the opportunity to wear the prestigious uniform and perform at Texas Stadium in front of 64,000 fans is something that still gives me goose bumps."

In 1998 she returned briefly to UNM and coached the Chaparral dance team for a year – a team she'd danced with for three years. "It was like coming home," she said. "Having the opportunity to coach the girls and be a part of UNM Lobo athletics again was so much fun. There is nothing like cheering on a Lobo game in The Pit!"

Johnson returned to Dallas for 10 years, where she married, had her daughters and got divorced before coming back to Albuquerque.

She decided to return to UNM in 2009 after training to become a court appointed special advocate for abused and neglected children. "The experience I had working with the two children on my first case made me realize that I had to finish. Making a positive difference in the life of a child has always been where my heart is. I knew I had to finish my degree in order to have a career in which I can make a difference every day," she said.

She also wanted to show – and not just tell – her daughters the value of education. "My daughters were able to witness their mommy graduate college, and that was worth it all," she said.

Going back to college full time was a big change. "It was a little scary to leave my job and return to school full time, but I was following my heart and my intuition," Johnson said. She said that without the support of family and friends, "it would have been near impossible to do as well as I did. My best friend Amanda always had the most encouraging words for me when I felt like I was in over my head. My parents and siblings lent a hand when needed with my daughters and were supportive of the choice I had made to finish school."

Now that she's graduated, Johnson plans to do casework with children in the nonprofit sector and eventually pursue a master's degree in counseling or social work.