What matters most to Elena Miller (C ‘23), in no particular order, are friends, family, and music.
Elena grew up in the suburbs of Detroit as the youngest of five brothers, which pretty much entirely explains why she’s “a little bit gritty and not falling apart just because [she’s] failed a couple classes.” It also provides some color as to why she’s a history major with no concentration: Because she didn’t like the idea of losing agency to study whatever she wanted. To me, it seems like Elena’s essence lies in her drive to unapologetically be herself—no holds barred.
“Music is everything to me,” she says. “I don’t know what life would look like without it.” She notes that, as the youngest sibling, and the only girl of five brothers, “You don’t really have a voice [in the family], even if they all love you.” Elena found her voice through music, picking up the trumpet at age ten and never looking back. “Even as a weird, acne–prone sixth grader with hormones and a strange Instagram account that’s somehow still on the Internet, I knew I started this thing that I couldn’t let go of,” they say.
This passion provided a space to heal while fighting tooth and nail with mental health issues. Sophomore fall marked Elena’s self–described rock bottom. They needed a musical outlet, and playing trumpet for the Penn Band wasn’t really working out the way they had hoped. Elena auditioned for Bloomers Band, and it gave her more than what she thought she needed: Something to play. Beyond “just wearing very few items of clothing,” her performances morphed into an opportunity for self–discovery.
While the band wasn’t doing any in–person gigs, they would chat on Zoom to pass the time and get to know each other. It was during these Zoom sessions that Elena met Aalia Rasheed (C ‘23), who already lived in a Bloomers house that was appropriately named “Tornado Village.” Aalia “scared the shit” out of Elena, but Tornado Village was in need of another roommate, and Elena wanted in. She signed the lease, and their fate was sealed.
Now, Aalia and their third housemate Franny Davis (C ‘23) are two of Elena’s best friends. “Tornado Village was where I started healing, the summer before my junior year,” they say. “I was surrounded by people with such boundless love for everyone in their lives, and I realized that it included me, too. To have [people] like that so close to you while you’re struggling … huge.”
Through all of their changes throughout the years, Elena can attribute so much personal growth to the context within which they’ve played trumpet. Playing in a competitive ensemble in high school was indicative of her perfectionist high school personality, while her role within Bloomers showcases the laidback side of her she always needed to channel. “I would get nervous before Bloomers gigs, but eventually I realized that people just want to see you having fun. They don’t know if you play a C or C sharp. They’re probably drunk, so why not just enjoy myself?” she says.
Elena’s academic career didn’t exactly follow suit with her musical success. For three and a half years, Elena was “getting absolutely decimated” by rapid cycling between depressive episodes and hypomania. “I failed enough classes to [need to] take one over the summer [to graduate], so people can do the math if they want,” she laughs. Elena notes that she should have withdrawn from one of the classes she failed, but she missed the deadline because of her ADHD and the fact that she couldn’t be prescribed stimulants until her mood was stabilized.
In fact, last semester, she impulsively changed her entire schedule on the last day of the add/drop period “because it seemed fun.” But fun it was not. After getting a concussion, she couldn’t take her finals, resulting in three incompletes and a fail. “I spent my winter break—because my brain decided to work, and I took Adderall—in Philadelphia to work on probably 70 percent of the semester for those three classes,” they say. But even after her medication was equilibrated and she started to get comfortable with her classes, the country’s Adderall shortage screwed her over once more. “It took until the end of my senior fall for me to have medication that reached a level of full efficacy. Just as I realized what an academic weapon I was, it was taken away,” she says with a smile.
We lament over how, despite the interminable ups and downs of a semester, our efforts are reflected by only a teeny tiny letter on a transcript that often means nothing more than its contribution towards our college diplomas. “There’s so much shit going on in life that our actual academic performance doesn’t represent,” Elena says.
And she’s right. Elena observes that, at Penn, lots of people subtly lead with their academic accomplishments. While there’s no doubt that everyone here is smart as hell, some people put up a front that can be discouraging of your own intellectual capacity. “I’m not going to be a Rhodes Scholar or a Fulbright Scholar, but I can tell you a lot about history,” she says.
“I’ve always been interested in the relationship between music and history, especially within [Detroit,] a city that has a very admirable history of solidarity,” they say. When Elena started at Penn, she wanted to write a thesis about the music of the long, hot summer of 1967, both because it signified the turmoil that accompanied the riots within which her father grew up and because the bloodiest of the riots occurred in Detroit, where her grandmother was born and raised.
But as her time at Penn went on, it became increasingly clear that she wouldn’t be able to write the thesis of her dreams. However, during her senior year, she got the chance to transform her idea in her favorite class, titled “The State of the Union is not good: The United States in Crisis in the 1970s,” writing a final paper that molded their thesis plan to fit the music of said decade. With the help of “the most fantastic professor” Brent Cebul, Elena felt the pride that she would have felt otherwise.
“You deserve to celebrate even the little tiny successes,” Elena says. “Regardless of what ‘best’ looks like on an objective scale—some metric decided upon by Liz Magill and the goblins of this University—as long as it was still your best, you should be extraordinarily proud of yourself,” Elena says. I laugh at her phraseology, but I know she’s being serious. After all, Penn is no easy place. “When you realize that other people feel the same as you feel about being less than they should be—even though everyone is everything that they should be—you realize that you’re not such an anomaly here,” she says.
While Elena doesn’t know what she’s doing after graduation, she knows she wants to be in the music industry. Last summer, they worked at a media agency doing marketing and social media management for their “favorite clients ever.” But because of her less than perfect academic encounters in the past, Elena initially doubted her intellectual capabilities at work. “As soon as I started the internship—and sorry that this is so cliché—I knew that if there’s a fire inside of me somewhere, it is absolutely lit doing work within music,” she says. She felt valuable in this ecosystem and knew that she could kick ass while doing it, a feeling that she hadn’t felt in a while.
Recently, Elena has been trying to reframe how she thinks about herself in the world around her. “Penn is a very fixed place, and the world is not,” she says. “I always want to be proud of the life I’m living and the work I put into things, but more so than any accolades, I value my relationships with others.” For Elena, success over the past four years meant “absolutely obliterating” her long relationship with mental health issues, working to a place where she doesn’t have to fear whether she’ll hit her next birthday. “The fact that I know what really brings me joy gives me something to look forward to,” she says.
These four years challenged Elena like they never had been before. With mental health, they believe that once you’ve taken care of it, all you have to do is maintain it. “It will never wreak havoc on my life like it did while I was here, and while I struggle a lot with attention and executive dysfunction, these really great little pills make me function how everyone around me has been able to function these last four years,” they say. “I do wonder if there will be an opportunity for me to say ‘It’s not that hard for me anymore.’” And that’s okay.
This forward–thinking mindset is essential.
For Elena, life is about looking to the future while refusing to get bogged down in the past. “I feel like a movie star for being so incredibly normal,” she laughs. I laugh too—not because she’s being funny, but because I wholeheartedly agree.