You don’t notice the tattoo at first. It’s an unassuming charm bracelet on her left wrist. Nothing too bold or flashy. It reads, “amor es para siempre,” meaning “love is forever.” And that is how Christina Miller views the world. She wants to leave behind an impression that will last. Forever.
No one asked her to become president of the Algonquin Students’ Association. But Miller is not one to hover in the background.
Looking at this poised young woman sitting in her sleek SA office, still glowing with the recent success of the U-Pass referendum, it’s easy to think she’s always been this put together. After all, not too many 23-year-olds have their name on a plaque outside their private office.
But Christina Miller’s life has not been easy. She has endured prejudice, bullying, and mental illness.
Today, she is a woman driven by her past. Miller knows she can’t fix everything, but she wants to do what she can. And she wants to make it count.
It began when she was around six or seven. Miller was diagnosed with an attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. This meant that she had a hard time focusing or staying still. Miller also began struggling with anxiety and depression.
Although Miller’s parents were separated, they were both still heavily involved in her life. Even so, Miller couldn’t give them a clear idea of what she was going through.
“They come from a generation where that kind of stuff was brushed under the carpet,” Miller said. “If I had an outburst, or was upset about something, it was really hard to talk to them because it was sort of blown off as ‘you’re just being a teenager.’”
Growing up in the southern Ontario town of Richmond Hill, Miller was raised by her mom. Lori-Ann Williams was a level-headed woman who taught her daughter to never change for anyone else.
But without having the same experiences, it was hard for Williams to relate to her daughter. Miller felt alone. Her closest friend, Luciana Armijo, said that Miller had to overcome a lot by herself. “She had to grow up really early,” Armijo said.
As a child, art was a comforting escape. Miller loved drawing anime or manga characters. It was a safe place for her – away from a world that was sometimes too hard to face.
Surviving high school’s popularity contest wasn’t easy either. Miller was bullied. She also struggled with her weight, and ended up losing 50 pounds during her four years of high school.
“Even though I was sure of myself, I still had low self-esteem because of all the names,” Miller said. “There were some pretty horrible things that happened.”
Still, she refused to be swayed by her peers. Miller wouldn’t change her interests or personality just to please others. This decision set her apart, but it also made her a target.
Miller still has scars from being bullied.
But through her experience, she has gained a greater empathy for others. “The saying, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ I really live by that,” Miller said.
After high school, she took time off to travel and work. Miller lived in Peru for nine months, working as a tour guide. Miller’s dad, Gustavo, was born in Peru, so she has family there. Her experience deepened her appreciation for different cultures and ways of life.
One of the hardest parts about being away from home was leaving behind her cat, Skittles. Miller has had cats for her entire life. She can’t stop smiling as she recounts the antics of Glitch, her new kitten.
After coming back from Peru, Miller moved to Ottawa. Her dad was already living there, and she wanted to study business at Algonquin.
At orientation, Miller learned about the Students’ Association and knew she wanted to take part. She especially sought to reach out to young people. Miller’s own experiences had taught her how important it is to support others.
Almost from the get-go, Miller had her eyes on the presidency. She had spent most of high school on the fringe of activities. She wanted college to be different.
At first it was just a dream. But after being appointed to the SA Board of Directors, Miller’s goal seemed more attainable.
Miller knew that she herself would be unlikely to vote for someone she didn’t know. Thus, she aimed to make her campaign personal by asking students about their concerns.
Miller’s younger brother, Kevin, said that he’s never seen anyone who can befriend perfect strangers the way she can. And Miller used this strength to her advantage during her campaign.
“All I really knew how to do was talk to students,” Miller said. “I’m not a politician and I haven’t done student politics. The only way for me to prove that I was capable was for me to go out there.”
Although Miller recognizes that social media can be a useful tool, she thinks that it damages society by making people forget how to interact with others.
“I like to look at people. I like to talk to people,” Miller explained. “I don’t want to connect with my phone, because my phone is just a piece of metal.”
Instead of relying on social media, Miller used face-to-face communication during her campaign. Her platform was based on students’ feedback and her own passion.
Her strategy paid off. Miller was elected president at the end of March 2014. Immediately, she started focusing on the U-Pass, which she genuinely believed would benefit the students.
A referendum was held in November 2014. Eighty-three per cent of the students who voted were in favour of the U-Pass. This positive response felt like a confirmation of the students’ trust in her.
However, Miller still deals with anxiety and depression. It never goes away, but she has learned how to cope with it.
“It is frustrating, I can’t lie. There are some days where I literally don’t want to get out of bed,” she admitted. “There are some days where it’s not even unhappiness, it is literally an empty feeling. You just feel empty. There’s nothing.”
As president of the SA, one of Miller’s priorities is advocating for mental health. She is passionate about supporting those facing mental illness and helping others have a better grasp of the issue. One of her life goals is to do a TED Talk on what it is like to live with mental illness.
Miller is eager to help with Algonquin’s new mental health initiative. She also fully supports the Purple Couch project. This student-led campaign is designed to encourage conversation about mental illness and make it easier for students to come forward to discuss their struggles.
Miller knows you can’t get better on your own. She opened up to her colleagues on the SA Board so that they could understand what she was dealing with.
“We’re all human. We all have issues,” she said. “I feel like if we spend less time trying to hide these things and more time trying to fix them, then we would become a stronger community.”
No matter what she might be going through, Christina Miller is very aware that she has important responsibilities as president. It is a demanding job, and Miller finds the pressure overwhelming at times.
She is still a student on top of her many responsibilities, and it can be difficult for her to separate her job from her personal life. However, she uses the pressure to push herself further. She has reduced her course load and organizes her schedule as efficiently as possible to make everything work.
Miller sometimes wonders why she cares so much. “I guess going through the things I went through as a kid, I don’t want anyone to have to go through that alone,” she said.
Miller has been involved in many volunteer projects. She has helped out in soup kitchens and handed out food to the homeless. But it never feels like it’s enough.
“I would rather find the solution for the problem than continuing to do those things, knowing that it’s not going to change,” she said.
Her family used to call her Mother Teresa, because she would try to fix any problem she encountered.
Vivienne Kay, a fellow colleague on the SA, admires Miller’s determination and empathy for others. However, she knows that Miller’s passion can be a weakness as well as a strength.
Miller can get emotionally attached to an issue she cares about, making it harder for her to see the bigger picture. “When she gets going it’s very hard to make her stop,” Kay said, smiling.
All it takes to “get her going” is finding a subject that Miller loves. Whether it’s the Xbox game Halo – her prized possession being a Halo helmet – or her dreams to change the world, Christina Miller comes alive.
She discovered Halo in eighth grade and became obsessed with the storyline and the fantasy genre. Miller said she used to play with her friends until 3 a.m., even on school nights.
The more she talks, the bigger her hand gestures become and the louder her voice gets. Her words start tumbling out one after another, as though she’s been holding it all in, waiting for a chance to share her excitement.
And excitement is certainly not something that Miller lacks – no matter how ill-fated the venture may be.
Miller’s partner, Cody Cleroux, recalls one time where he and Miller got stuck in the pouring rain outside the Canadian Museum of History.
They were trying to go see a fireworks show. Instead, they got caught in a torrential downpour, both of them huddled under one jacket. “Just to watch these sad, soaking wet fireworks,” Cleroux said, laughing.
The rain eventually stopped and the show was able to continue. It ended up being an amazing display – worth getting drenched for. “It was the best memory ever,” Cleroux said.
Back in her office, Christina Miller admits that she hasn’t decided what she’ll do after she graduates. But she knows one thing. Her dreams extend beyond one building, one city, or one nation.
“It’s really just a compassion for human beings and wanting to change the world,” she said. “I can’t change everything, but at least I can change something.”