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Senior Monika Keller won Miss Congeniality during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Monika Keller | Courtesy

Princesses don’t always have it easy, as participants of the Cherry Blossom Princess Program, held last week during the National Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., found out. Long days full of meetings with foreign dignitaries, receptions, a grand ball, and reading to kindergarteners was exhausting — but well worth it, senior Monika Keller said.

Sponsored by the National Conference of State Societies, the Cherry Blossom Princess Program is an annual cultural and professional development program for 19-to-24-year-old women, according to the program’s website. Young women can apply to represent their states or territories in the program, and if chosen as princesses, they participate in the week-long event in Washington, D.C.

“It was such an awesome week,” said Keller, who represented Washington, her home state, in the program. “It definitely is a crazy week, and you have to learn to be flexible and understanding, but it’s a great mix of events and opportunities.”

At the grand ball on Friday, Keller was named Miss Congeniality and presented with a sash and flowers, she said. Before the ball, the princesses had voted on who should receive the title. Keller said she was humbled and surprised to receive the award.

Senior Mariah Hardy, who’s Keller’s little sister in the Chi Omega sorority, said she wasn’t surprised.

“Monika is a natural leader,” Hardy said in an email. “She acts with integrity and treats others with respect. Monika is giving and inclusive and will go out of her way to make someone feel like they are part of the team.”

Keller, who is interning for the Senate Finance Committee for the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program this semester, said she found out about the program when she came to Washington, D.C. and decided to apply. Part of her interest, she said, came from her Japanese roots: Her mother is from Tokyo, and Japanese traditions have played a role in her upbringing.

“I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture and in Japanese-American relations,” Keller said, noting that every summer, her family would attend a Japanese festival in Seattle, which has a large Japanese community.

The cherry blossom trees in Washington, D.C. were a gift from Japan, and the program celebrates the relationship between the two countries, Keller said.

This year, 41 princesses participated in the program, Keller said, along with three international princesses from Japan, Russia, and the Philippines. Although the women are called princesses, the event is more like an ambassador program than a pageant, Keller noted.

“We’re all representing our states and territories and participating in relational events,” she said.

Each day was packed from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Events included a reception at the Japanese ambassador’s residence, an evening at the Russian Cultural Center, a visit to a sustainable food and agriculture farm at Woodlawn Plantation, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the John F. Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts.

On Friday night, the princesses attended the grand ball — featuring sushi chefs flown in from Japan — and on Saturday, they rode in floats at the National Cherry Blossom Parade.

Keller said she would recommend that other Hillsdale women apply for the program.

“I highly, highly encourage it,” she said. “It is such a blast and definitely memorable. You learn a lot, too.”