MARYLAND, USA — Aruna Miller became a household name for many Marylanders after becoming the nation's first South Asian woman to become lieutenant governor. She, alongside Gov. Wes Moore, made a historical run to lead the state and came out victorious.
But, her story doesn't start there.
It started years ago on a journey from India to becoming an American citizen. Every moment made her who she is today and now, during a month that celebrates Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders' heritage, she goes back down memory lane.
It's February 1972 and at the age of seven, Miller arrives in the United States. At the time, she didn't know her dad, her mom, or her siblings because they had immigrated to New York before her; Miller's dad could not afford to bring them all to the States at one time, so she arrived last.
"I remember stepping off the airplane, looking into the airport, and I see this sea of people, right? Hundreds and hundreds of people. And in my little mind as a child, I'm looking at them and I'm thinking, 'holy moly, I love this country. Look at all these people that came to greet my dad and me as we arrived to the United States,'" Miller said as a smile grew across her face, growing more and more with each word. "And then I got really excited when I thought they were throwing confetti to welcome us."
What the young Miller thought was confetti thrown in greeting was actually snow.
"I'd never seen snow before," Miller said. "But I will never forget that day because I've never stopped being excited about this nation and what it promises for immigrants from all over the world to come here and have the great privilege of being an American."
That inspiration never left her spirit and with the knowledge that many people are often left behind - that's why she has dedicated herself to public service. And, one part of that is serving all Marylanders, which starts with knowing their struggles. AAPI Heritage Month is not just about the positives, Miller said, but acknowledging the struggles that the community has faced in the past.
"Look, these are feelings that last for generations of being persecuted, of being put in these situations where you're seeing less of an American because of the way you look or from your original heritage, whatever that may be," Miller said. "So we need to be able to erase that. We can't do that overnight. We need to make sure that these communities feel welcome, include it in everything that they do."
With the Asian American community coming from more than 50 ethnic groups and 40 different countries, she says their needs are not monolithic and while in this role she plans to make them feel welcomed.
Miller says the assignment was never to be the first, but instead to grow spaces for every member of the community to feel safe. In addition, representation makes a huge difference.
"That's just the beginning part of how you can represent a community that maybe has felt like they've been left behind. And it's not just the South Asian community. It's all communities of color," she said with lightness in her voice and sternness in her eyes. "I want to be able to be a voice for them."
Asian hate has been prevalent across the state of Maryland, as well as the country, she said, but she said they are not alone - Jewish, Black and Muslim Americans have also been facing these adversities. Miller and Gov. Wes Moore have been working on a plan of action to combat that.
"We have invested $5 million to combat fighting against hate crimes," Miller said. "We've also created the most diverse cabinet in Maryland's history, where 50% of the cabinet secretaries are people of color; five of the cabinet secretaries are Asian Americans. So I think that representation is important, but it's important to also have them in leadership roles. It's one thing to be invited to a party. It's another thing to be asked to dance."
Miller expresses that this is just one part of the plan. The duo have also funded the new Office of Immigration for the state, which will help immigrant communities to be able to navigate government and understand services that are available to them.
"I think this will go a long way in being able to bridge that gap to the Asian American community reaching out to address their special needs," she said.
When 7-year-old Aruna arrived to the U.S. and looked out to the sea of people, she might not have known that it would foreshadow her inauguration day -- a day where cheers were loud, claps were thunderous, and celebrities gathered. Snow might not have fallen, but barriers did within the diverse state. The inauguration marked a moment in history, which to her and Gov. Moore only marked the beginning.
With her head held high, she even remarks on a future adventure with Gov. Moore - a trip to India, the place rooted in her diverse South Asian culture.
"I know my state that I'm from will be beside themselves," she said about visiting India with him. "They're so excited about the both of us and being in this role."
But no matter where the journey takes her, she plans to embody inclusion in her plans.
"I'm going to tell every single little girl and little boy out there that's ever felt like they didn't belong in a room, I want them to know that you do belong there. You belong in every space, and you belong to be your authentic self in every one of those spaces," the lieutenant governor said. "I spent my entire life trying to fit into spaces that didn't have me in mine, whether that was being an immigrant in a Western world, or a female engineer in a male dominated field, or a woman of color legislator in a legislature that looked nothing like me. And I realized that it was never about trying to change myself so I could fit into these spaces. It was always about me being my authentic self in every one of these spaces. So I want to tell every little girl, little boy and every person out there, if you ever felt like you didn't belong, know that we are not going to have a state like that anymore."