By Jennon Bell   Published Dec 24, 2005 at 5:52 AM

Jen Steele could be the girl next door. A student at UW-Whitewater, Steele has multiple jobs to help her pay for school. She's a cheerleader and is studying for a degree in journalism. Steele is also the newly awarded Miss Seventeen, but so far, she hasn't let it go to her head -- she's granting interviews while distributing Christmas gifts to children through her church.

A native of Wisconsin Dells, Steele began the whirlwind experience when her best friend gave her a magazine clipping to keep her inspired throughout the day. At the bottom of the clipping was an open audition announcement looking for young, ambitious girls to be a Seventeen Magazine spokesperson. On a whim, Steele drove six hours to Minneapolis to audition, not knowing what exactly she was getting herself into.

"All I knew was that is was an excellent opportunity that I couldn't pass up," says Steele

In July, Steele joined 16 other girls to live in a loft in New York City and compete for the coveted prize of Miss Seventeen on the reality television show "Miss Seventeen" on MTV. The show aired this past fall, eliminating a different girl each week until just two remained, Jess Velez of New Jersey and Jen Steele. The girls had to wait four months to learn who would win the ultimate prize.

"We were contracted to not say anything," says Steele. "If we did, they could sue us for $3 million if we told anyone. I can't keep a secret, anyway, but when it's serious like that I can do it."

"It was hard because after every show every night that I went to bed I was just like, 'Now what?' I just wanted to know already!" she says.

At a live taping at Times Square in Manhattan last Friday, Steele learned that she was the new Miss Seventeen.

"I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it!"

The winner is awarded a $25,000 college scholarship, a paid internship at Seventeen Magazine, and the cover of February's issue of Seventeen. In addition, the chosen girl becomes the Seventeen Magazine representative, encouraging young women to stick to their values and make the best choices for themselves.

"Because of the competition, I get a microphone now. I'm going on a nationwide speaking tour where I think it is really cool to be the motivational speaker. I know there is the typical motivational speakers that are older men with crazy names telling you how you should be and whatnot, and I remember that, and I didn't feel connected to that," says Steele. "But now, girls can say, 'Here's a girl who's been there and has an actual interest. It's a young girl who I can relate to.'"

Steele draws upon her own experiences to help connect with girls who also have difficult issues going on in their lives. Both of her parents are incarcerated, making Jen's mission to speak that much more important to her.

"I'm going to talk about teen issues and choices. Specifically, I want to discuss the devastation of addiction. I am really passionate about women's issues and fighting the impossible images of young girls and the potential towards change because I'm not the best looking girl in the group. I have braces on and they are putting me on the cover."

As modest as Steele is, she remains strong in her convictions.

Says Steele, "I have gumption. I always try to do the best I could, and say you know what? I'm in my element because I told myself it was in my element."