Jessielyn Palumbo Asya Branch
It’s been less than 24 hours since she was crowned Miss USA 2020, but Asya Branch already has a stacked to-do list — and her first order of business is moving to New York City.
“I’m moving this afternoon! It’s insane and amazing and I’m so excited,” Branch, a 22-year-old model and beauty company owner, tells PEOPLE the morning after her big Monday night win. “It’s going to be a lot faster-paced than Mississippi, but it’s going to be such an incredible journey.”
Hailing from Booneville, Branch has already had something of an incredible journey as the first Black woman to ever be named Miss Mississippi USA — and the first woman from the Magnolia State to ever wear the national crown.
“I think my mind was just a little blank. I was just frozen, like, ‘I can’t believe this!’ ” she says of the moment Miss USA 2019 Chelsie Kryst named her the winner on stage at Graceland. “But at the same time, [I'm] just so grateful and so humbled and you just realize that something you’ve worked so hard for has finally come to fruition."
"It’s amazing to think about," says Branch, "and it just feels so surreal in that moment.”
The fact that she made history amid an already historic weekend — in which the United States sent Sen. Kamala Harris, the first Black and first female vice president-elect, into the White House — isn’t lost on Branch, who says she hopes to use her reign to inspire little girls across the nation.
“It’s truly inspiring and it’s great to have these examples. Growing up, if I were to look at these powerful positions in the White House, there weren’t women taking up space. There weren’t minorities taking up space,” she says. “It serves as a great example for our youth to know that it doesn’t matter what color you are, doesn’t matter what gender you are — you can accomplish your wildest dreams.”
Benjamin Askinas Asya Branch on stage at the Miss USA competition
Branch’s dreams of the Miss USA tiara began her senior year of high school when she first started competing in pageants. Since the beginning, she’s kept much of her focus on criminal justice and prison reform, a cause that’s extremely personal to her, as her father was incarcerated for 10 years of her life.
While he was gone, her family lost their home to foreclosure and struggled to make ends meet.
“So often what people miss when they see someone on the news who’s been arrested [is] the family that they leave behind,” Branch says. “That’s where my impetus began, on the children and families at home … And then it’s stretched into working with inmates and helping them see their purpose and speaking with them, hearing their stories and making them feel heard and feel like the humans that they are.”
In 2018, Branch participated in a criminal justice reform roundtable at the White House alongside President Donald Trump, and also sang the national anthem at a rally for Trump in Southaven, Mississippi, that October.
FYI Asya Branch
Branch tells PEOPLE that while she doesn’t typically share her political beliefs, her performance at the rally was scheduled for her while under contractual obligation with the Miss Mississippi Corp. But it's still something she takes pride in.
“Regardless of political beliefs, I find it an honor to be able to sing the national anthem anywhere and it just so happened to be at a Trump rally,” she says. “And I know I caught a lot of backlash for that. But no one knows if that has anything to do with my political beliefs or not. I did have a duty as an employee of the Miss Mississippi Corp. as well as a representative of the state of Mississippi.”
As for the roundtable, Branch says it was a productive meeting in which she was able to help lobby for the First Step Act, a bipartisan reform bill Trump signed which helps reintegrate inmates into society.
“If you can’t get a seat at the table, you can’t make a difference,” Branch says. “I found that to be an inspiring and moving moment for me because it shows that I can accomplish things and I can accomplish my goals and really make a difference in the world.”
She adds: “So yes, I caught backlash for it, but I feel like it was a meeting that gave me an opportunity to speak up on a cause that was very important to me.”
RELATED VIDEO: Ms. Wheelchair USA 2020 Danielle Rice Is Fighting Misconceptions About People with Disabilities
Ms. Wheelchair USA 2020 Danielle Rice Is Fighting Misconceptions About People with Disabilities
Ms. Wheelchair USA celebrates the achievements of women with disabilities
In order to seal the deal for herself in Monday night’s competition, Branch was asked to speak about gun laws. She said that as someone who grew up in a home with firearms, she felt it was important for the U.S. not to implement a ban but rather to “require people to pass training and safety courses before they’re allowed to purchase a gun and before receiving a permit.”
She also spoke to political polarization in the country and said people had to “set a better example” moving forward and work to restore trust lost in “the systems that seem to keep our country running — from the media to business to our government.”
Though guns can be a polarizing issue themselves, Branch tells PEOPLE she had “no worries” ahead of her statement.
“I knew that I was speaking from my heart, I was speaking truthfully and honestly, and that’s truly how I feel,” she says. “And in this country we’re entitled to our opinions.”
As for what’s next, Branch acknowledges that her time as Miss USA might look a little different than normal because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, but she’s still looking forward to sharing her messages digitally through platforms like Zoom.
“I will continue working toward prison reform and criminal justice reform, as well as just being a positive light,” she says. “I just truly want this year to give me the opportunity to be a role model for young women and to serve as an example and continue leaving a lasting impact on the lives of others.”