A traumatic event in middle school prompts Miller ’15 to remap her life

by University Communications,

As commencement nears, our graduates reflect on their Willamette experience and share their plans for the future. This is the second of our five-part series.

When her phone began ringing during dinner, Emily Miller ’15 ignored it. But when it didn’t stop, she knew something was terribly wrong.

“Then my mom’s phone started ringing,” Miller says. “She went to answer it, ran around the corner to me and told me to sit down. Before she really said anything, I knew what had happened.”

Miller’s best friend, Austin, had died. A bus hit him while he biked home from a school play Miller was directing.

“I remember screaming [when I found out],” says Miller, who was 14 at the time. “That was by far the worst day of my entire life. I can’t imagine it being any worse.”

Miller and Austin had been inseparable. They met in art school, shared a love for creative writing and planned to become either actors or novelists. But after Austin’s death in 2008, the life Miller had envisioned for herself began to change. Helping others became her new calling, and she began volunteering at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center in her hometown of Portland.

“I felt like I needed to work directly with people who were vulnerable, who were hurting,” she says. “That goal has really defined the rest of my life.”

By the time she enrolled at Willamette University as a chemistry major in 2011, Miller knew she wanted to become a doctor. Now about to graduate, she’s ready and excited for the next chapter of her life: medical school at UCLA.

“It’s a great institution known for producing physicians interested in research, teaching and patients — which is what I’m passionate about,” she says. “I’m so glad Willamette helped prepare me to achieve my career goals.”

Beacon of Hope

Miller spent time in counseling after Austin died. But after several months, she decided to help others by volunteering at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. While there, she talked to patients, escorted them to their surgeries and shadowed physicians.

That’s when the hospital started to feel like her second home.

“It was this beacon of healing and hope,” she says. “I just loved being there.”

By the time she enrolled at Willamette, Miller had amassed 500 hours of volunteer service. She continued her service by volunteering and working as a medical scribe at nearby Salem Hospital. She learned how to provide emergency aid through the university’s Willamette Emergency Services (WEMS), and she immersed herself in Chemistry Club.

If that weren’t enough, she became a chemistry tutor and worked as a research assistant in the chemistry lab at Willamette and Oregon Health & Science University. She also became a Webber Scholar through the Willamette Science Outreach Program, in which female science students mentor and encourage young girls to pursue similar studies.

“I love working with kids and I love getting people excited about the science,” Miller says. “So combining these two passions into one program is just phenomenal.”

Amazing Mentors

Miller credits her successes at Willamette to the mentorship she’s received from her chemistry professors. She feels they care about her not simply as a student but also as a person.

“They don’t just teach, do research and go home for the day,” she says. “They are very invested in their students’ well being, success and happiness. I think that’s unique.”

For chemistry professors Sarah Kirk and Andrew Duncan, the respect is mutual. Kirk says Miller is incredibly talented and dedicated, as evidenced by her tutoring and teaching experiences.

“Emily is an outstanding student and university citizen,” Kirk says. “She is extremely organized and goal-driven. In fact, I am not sure that I have ever had a student who is so thoughtful about process.”

Duncan agrees, adding Miller has an incredible intellect, loads of energy, and a clear passion for medicine. He says he can’t imagine a challenge she couldn’t take on and overcome.

“She is going to do some great things out there in the world,” he says. “Whether she ends up on the research end of things, on the patient-care side, or both, she is most certainly someone who will have an impact.”

Next Step: Medical School

With graduation approaching, Miller is now focused on medical school in the fall. She plans to specialize in pediatric oncology — a field that combines her love of research and children.

“When I found out I got in, I burst into tears. I couldn’t be happier,” Miller says. “I love the location, and the hospitals associated with UCLA are amazing. To be able to train there is an absolute dream.”

Although sad to leave Willamette, Miller says she’ll always benefit from everything she learned here.

“The diversity of experiences I’ve had here has helped me tremendously,” she says. “I’m an effective communicator. I’ve learned to solve problems and to think critically. I’m thankful to Willamette for all of that.”


Other 2015 graduates

Changing Direction

Halfway through his Willamette education, Jonny Saunders '15 discovered his love for neuroscience. Now, he's off to graduate school to continue his studies.

One Person, One Waterfall at a Time

Martha Sonato ’15 takes a person-to-person approach to engage the Latino community with environmental issues in the Columbia River Gorge.

Artistic Outlook

As the first Willamette student to win the Luce Scholar national fellowship, Oldham '14, MBA'15 is spending a year in Japan to study the art of ikebana.

Making Her Voice Heard

An aspiring human rights journalist, Natalie Pate '15 is honing her writing skills this summer through a reporting internship with the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem.