updated 06/30/2014 AT 6:00 PM ET
•originally published 06/30/2014 AT 7:30 PM ET
It’s a call that every pageant winner dreads.
Elizabeth Fechtel had been crowned Miss Florida on June 21 and was five days into her reign when she heard the bad news: there had been a scoring error. She was no longer Miss Florida, but was now the first runner-up.
The woman who had come in second, Victoria Cowen, was the new Miss Florida and would compete in the Miss America pageant in September.
“Initially, it was completely devastating,” Fechtel tells PEOPLE. “It took a good 24 hours for me to process what this would mean for my future. I had already planned out what the next year was going to be like, and now things had changed. I also wondered how I was going to explain this to my friends and family. But then I realized, I’m going to be fine. This isn’t the end.”
As the news began to sink in, Fechtel, 20, started to think about the new Miss Florida. “I’m sorry she didn’t get her crowning moment, because that was a wonderful moment,” she says. “She deserved to have that.”
Despite her disappointment, Fechtel has tried to maintain an upbeat attitude. On vacation with her family – in part, to avoid the aggressive media knocking on her door – she opened up to PEOPLE about everything that has happened.
Losing the title was especially hard for Fechtel because of the hard work it took to become Miss Florida. For months before the pageant, she prepared to compete – but not in the way one might expect. “I didn’t focus on the looks,” says Fechtel, who was Miss University of Florida. “I worked on my communication skills. I practiced how to answer interviews. I worked on my talent, which was jazz dancing. I wanted to be a well-rounded person. The hair and the makeup were just the finishing touches.”
“I’ve always felt like anyone can do things to look more conventional,” she adds. “Hair, makeup, teeth, all that. There were 50 girls there, and they were all beautiful. And this sounds funny coming from a pageant contestant, but what makes a girl stand out is the internal. I’m not discounting the physical aspects of the pageant, but I wanted to make myself grow as a person, and to be able to express myself well. So that was my preparation.
And for five days, Fechtel was living out her dream. “It was wonderful,” she says. “I think I was most excited about the megaphone that the crown gives you. I had a platform, which was empowering young leaders and giving them the tools they would need for success. I wanted to work to give kids basic life skills – financial literacy, work readiness, time management. A lot of kids go through school and don’t learn the basic stuff it means to be an adult. There are so many people who go to college, but don’t even know how to balance a basic budget. So I wanted to help them with that, and I thought that the crown would be a great way to do it.”
The crown is gone – but the platform lives on. “I’ve been ‘de-crowned,’” she laughs, “but I still see immense opportunity. I can channel my energy to my platform whether or not I’m Miss Florida. I can still do whatever I want to do philanthropically. There is nothing saying that I can’t have a lasting impact on people’s lives, no matter what.”
“In some ways,” she continues, “my platform has become larger, at least for the moment, because of what happened. I could use these moments to promote myself, or I could promote the importance of learning life skills at a young age. I would prefer to promote my platform. I really do want to do a lot of good with my life.”
First things first. Fechtel, who will now receive more than $9,000 in scholarships as a first runner-up, will return to the University of Florida for her junior year. A former telecommunications major, she will now study political science with minors in mass communication and entrepreneurship. “I love the idea of social entrepreneurship,” she says. “How can I help someone through business ownership? How can I make a difference? All of that is very important to me. My goal is to walk into a classroom and talk to the students about having a purpose-driven life.”
“I don’t know what doors are going to open,” she adds. “But I’ve heard from a lot of people. It’s great to hear about the opportunities, but I just like hearing from people who identify with what has happened. A lady sent me a message on Instagram saying that I had inspired her 11-year-old daughter. I felt like that was a great compliment.”
And as for her relationship with the new Miss Florida, Victoria Cowen? “We were friends before this and we’re friends now,” says Fechtel. “I really, sincerely wish her the absolute best. I hope that only good things happen to her.”