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Scanlan is of Croatian ancestry. Her maternal grandparents, Frank and Nives Jelich, immigrated to the United States from Ilovik, Croatia.
Scanlan was home-schooled until her junior year of high school, before attending Gering High School for half of her junior year. She graduated early from Scottsbluff High School in the spring of 2010 after taking a double load of classes throughout high school.
She won the title of Miss Nebraska on June 5, 2010, when she received her crown from outgoing titleholder Brittany Jeffers. Scanlan’s platform is “Eating disorders: A generation at risk” and her competition talent is piano. At 17 years of age, she is the youngest Miss Nebraska ever crowned. After winning the title of Miss Nebraska, Scanlan announced that she was taking a year off from school to fulfill her duties as Miss Nebraska, and that she had deferred enrollment to Patrick Henry College until the fall of 2011.
She won the Miss America title on January 15, 2011, becoming the first Miss Nebraska to win the title, and the youngest winner in 74 years.