'It can be overwhelming to feel like a pioneer' – Miss Universe Ireland Fionnghuala O'Reilly on being an army brat and working for NASA

When Fionnghuala O’Reilly was a teenager, she spent three summers living on campus at Berkeley University, California, at a residential maths and science academy.

Not your average adolescent’s choice of summer activity, but it was Fionnghuala O’Reilly’s choice. Her parents, Vanetta and Fergal, didn’t push Fionnghuala, the fourth of their six daughters, in this direction. It was the direction she chose for herself and they, says Fionnghuala, “were the cheerleaders”.

“I did my first summer academy there when I was about 15,” she recalls, “and the family travelled a lot in those years, but no matter where I was in the world, between the ages of 15 and 17, I’d fly back to California and I’d spend my summers living on campus at Berkeley and taking science, engineering and math classes.”

Those summers fed Fionnghuala’s love of these subjects, but also her independent soul, and, for the first time, she felt she’d found her place. Not California, and not academia, but the world of science and technology. And that feeling of belonging surprised her.

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“Most importantly, in those summers, I was with people who looked like me,” Fionnghuala says. “It was the first time I was ever surrounded by a load of girls and a load of minority students with the same passion in these subjects. And that was so important to me, because it demystified what it meant to be an engineer. I grew up seeing that only white men in white coats were scientists.”

Visibility is so important, says Fionnghuala, who, last August, was crowned Miss Universe Ireland. As a teen, she needed to see around her engineers, scientists, mathematicians who were everything other than male, pale and stale. Otherwise, how could she know this world was for her?

Now, she’s a datanaut with Nasa. A woman, especially a woman of colour, might not have had access to that world until recently, and Fionnghuala is aware of being a gamechanger.

Similarly, with her pageant work, she recognises that she’s a visible model of what it means to be Irish in the 21st Century. The reaction to her win has been amazing, she says, and far more powerful than she anticipated.

“I was very conscious in advance about what people would say about someone like me winning,” says Fionnghuala, “someone with such a different background and an accent but it’s been unbelievable.”

She explains – in her very American accent, with only the odd flat Irish vowel – how the reaction has come from all over the world.

“It’s powerful for people to look at me and go, ‘There’s an Irish girl who looks like me,'” says Fionnghuala. “And I’m happy to be able to do that.”

Fionnghuala O’Reilly’s father, Fergal, is from Swords, Co Dublin, originally, and secured a green card in the 1980s to work in the US. Working as a bricklayer and painter in San Francisco, he met Fionnghuala’s mother, Vanetta, and they got married.

Originally, the couple planned to have their family in Ireland, but ultimately, they adopted a peripatetic life, travelling all over the world with their ever-growing brood of girls, the youngest of whom, Aoife, is now 14.

“So we’ve been back and forth to Ireland on and off all through my childhood and I came back here on my own for a while when I was a teen,” Fionnghuala explains. “One of my older sisters lives here now with my two nieces, and my gran lives in Sutton. At the Miss Universe final I had 19 family members in the audience.”

Ireland was a very different place when her parents first came here almost 30 years ago, she comments.

“My mom knew it was going to be a different experience, but she did struggle and she has talked about that to us, about how difficult it was,” says Fionnghula. “It was the late 1980s and early 1990s and she would say there wasn’t another black person for miles. Her experience was interesting. She loved it here, but at times it was hard.”

Again, she comments, it’s the thing of visibility. It’s subtle, but it’s significant, Fionnghuala says.

Fergal and Vanetta went back to the States and he enlisted in the US Army, where he remains today. It allowed them to travel, Fionnghuala says, and there was a tradition of “uniformed men” on both sides.

“I think that’s where it came from for my dad,” she says. “My grandfather on my dad’s side, Thomas O’Reilly, was a former deputy commissioner of An Garda Siochana, and my mom’s father was in the US Army as well.”

Travelling the world with the US Army with a family of six young girls was “big hair, a lot of noise,” Fionnghuala says with a laugh.

They lived on Army bases until she, the fourth daughter, was six or seven years old. That was a great life for a kid, says Fionnghuala, very outdoorsy and free and safe. When they moved off base for the first time, while stationed in Germany, she realised for the first time that it was also a very uniform life. Everyone lived in the same houses, and had the same furnishings, food, places to spend their free time.

Three years living off base in Germany were eye-opening, and then they moved on again. The family was living in California when 15-year-old Fionnghula first attended the Berkeley summer camp, but when they moved on the following year, she came back on her own, so keen was she to attend again.

“When I went to university, at The George Washington University in Washington DC,” says Fionnghuala, “I’d never lived anywhere for so long before. Three years was the max we’d stayed in any place, and I had such itchy feet, but it was good for me, too.”

“I knew by college that I wanted to be a systems engineer,” she says, explaining that this branch of engineerings is relatively new, originating in the 1970s. “It’s all about optimisation of systems, like, public transportation is a system, circulation in the body is a system. It’s about real-world challenges that you have.”

As Fionnghuala launches into an explanation, you can see pageant mode take over. She’s done this before and it flows into a description of what it means to be a datanaut.

“Datanaut is basically a fancy word for data scientist,” says Fionnghuala, with a laugh. “That’s someone who works with massive amounts of data to make sense of it. You do that through statistics, through math, through, for example with Nasa, mapping different exoplanets.”

She laughs again when I ask what is an exoplanet.

Fionnghuala explains that the Nasa Datanaut Program employs coders, scientists, mathematicians, anyone with a skill for processing information, to work on their publicly accessible records in the hope of filtering out information that hasn’t been spotted previously.

“Someone has to map out the data so that the scientists have something to work on and base theories and experiments on,” Fionnghula says.

She must have a very special sort of brain, I suggest.

“I’m a try-er,” she says, one suspects rather humbly. “I’ll try lots of different things.”

“Nasa came about in a weirdly random way. A good friend of mine was working in the Datanauts Program and said to me I should look into it when the next wave of applications happened, but I had never considered a space agency.

“It was something that was not on my radar, but it has given me a load of confidence,” she says. “Because there are moments when you think you don’t have what it takes and it gave me a huge boost and I keep working to get further and it’s been really fun.

“Nasa is really involved with diversity, but I had never thought it was a possibility for me as a woman of colour.”

The promotion of possibility is high on Fionnghuala’s list of priorities as Miss Universe Ireland and, for a few minutes, she drifts again into pageant-speak as she explains her projects as the title holder.

“There a lot of different charities and philanthropies I’ve been partnering with,” she says, “and some since before my win, like the Nasa Space Apps Challenge. And there are a bunch of different organisations that I work with to empower girls and women who tech, like Girls Who Code, and I’m a member of the Women in Tech and Science in Ireland.”

A huge highlight of her time with Nasa, she says, was when she was invited to be on site for the Nasa Insight mission launch to Mars, the second successful mission out of seven in total. She was there in the California desert for the launch and landing, and she brought representatives of Girls Who Code out there with her, to make visible the reality of being a woman in Nasa.

Fionnghuala – who goes by the more manageable Fig O’Reilly on her social media – laughs when I ask about how she marries the day job with being a pageant queen.

“That gets brought up a lot,” she says, “and it’s good to have that conversation. I’m a girl. I love big hair and make-up and dressing up and I’ve been having a great time with that and I really love what I do and I feel passionate about it. But you shouldn’t feel that if you have interest in one area that it’s strange or embarrassing to have an interest in another area. I want girls to feel that.”

Fionnghuala remembers seeing the Miss Universe pageant when she was about 10 and thinking it was amazing, but she never really imagined it was a world she could or would inhabit.

Her friends did pageants in school, but Fionnghuala thought of herself as more the sporty type. She was 18 and in university when she first entered a pageant, by way of gaining entry to a sorority. Also, she says, it was a change of environment and a chance to try something new. “I thought, ‘Let’s do something different,'” she says, “and it was my first crown, Miss Freshman, and I made friends and it was super-fun, so I looked into other pageants and did it again.”

She’s working remotely from Dublin while she prepares for the Miss Universe contest, and Nasa has been very flexible about allowing her that freedom. “When I rang my director the week after I won, he was delighted and impressed,” Fionnghuala says. “I want girls to know that not everyone working in STEM wears glasses and a lab coat. You can like make-up and eyelashes, you know?”

These days, Fionnghuala’s family is scattered around the world. One of her older sisters, her mother and her youngest sister are in Washington DC, while her father is based in Mozambique. Her mother and the older girls always travelled with her dad when they were young, but they were a pack and had each other for support, says Fionnghuala. Her parents feel her youngest sister doesn’t have that, so they want her to have stability in the US for now, but they spend some time in Mozambique, too.

Really, Fionnghuala says, while they were all together through her childhood, they all remember different things about different countries in which they lived and took different experiences and lessons from them. They have all six turned out to be very different people, with Fionnghuala without doubt the most visible of them.

“It can be overwelming sometimes to feel like a pioneer,” she says. “Sometimes you just want to be like everyone else. But it can also be rewarding to do things that maybe inspire others.

Fionnghuala O’Reilly is thrilled by the idea that her reign as Miss Universe Ireland might inspire even one girl somewhere. It’s about girls looking at her and seeing an Irish girl who looks like they do, or an engineer who looks like they do.

“It’s a timely message and we’re ready for it, and we need it,” says Fionnghuala. “I’m happy to have it as part of my message that there’s beauty in diversity and we are all Irish. There’s no one way to be Irish and I want to be able to show that.”

To follow Fionnghuala’s journey follow @missuniverseireland on social media and see missunivserseireland.eu #reachforthestars

Photography by Kip Carroll

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