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Victoria Chen: How an Advocate Becomes an Advocate

Victoria ChenTake a look at Victoria Chen’s resume and it won’t be long until you realize she is, at only 23, one of the most accomplished people you know.

A pianist who has achieved her Associate’s Diploma from the Royal Conservatory of Music (and just for fun, she also plays guitar and saxophone), she was valedictorian at Glenforest Secondary School in Mississauga, a University of Toronto student who garnered strong reviews from her professors in psychology and molecular biology, a peer mentor to first-year life science students, a student researcher investigating brain tumours at The Hospital for Sick Children, an executive with one of the largest university student unions in Canada, and a volunteer with a crisis response hotline.

And then you talk with Victoria and you realize getting to these impressive achievements has been gruelling, to say the least.

Diagnosed with leukemia at age two, she developed a spinal cord injury due to chemotherapy complications, and has been living with lower limb weakness and spasticity for over 20 years. She was surrounded by able-bodied people and found herself constantly having to keep up with them. Today, she uses forearm crutches and a motorized scooter to get around and finds it difficult to do what many consider simple. Like getting into an elevator and then feeling the awkwardness of causing a hold-up and taking up so much space while others shuffle around trying to get out of her way.

She’s learned to become, in addition to her myriad other accomplishments, an advocate.

“When I was really young, I was not good at advocating for myself. I was pretty timid and my parents (mom Angela and dad Kevin) handled all that for me. I wasn’t good at advocating for myself at school either, but there were people there who did it for me.”

Slowly, her perspective changed.

“As you grow up, you have to learn how to stand up for yourself and verbalize what support you need to enable you to live your life fully. I realized it was up to me. That’s when I started to consciously work on advocating for myself.”

By grade 10, she had become an Easter Seals Ambassador and over the next number of years undertook many other endeavours that helped her feel she was doing something good for others (including donating oil paintings she did herself to Easter Seals Ontario and ErinoakKids).

A huge inspiration in that regard was when she learned about Terry Fox.

It wasn’t the international fame Fox achieved from his 1980 Marathon of Hope that inspired Victoria, but his utter determination to attempt to run across Canada after having his leg amputated due to cancer.

“When I think of the quintessential role model, he is the person who comes to mind. I admire him so much. I especially admire how humble he was and his sheer grit. I’ve read stories about how he ran that distance, day after day. It was unbelievable. And yet he persevered. Running in the rain, getting blisters and callouses, it was just amazing.”

While she says she’s not going to run a marathon, she wants to embody Fox’s spirit in all that she does.

“I want to be pure in my intentions and in my goals, just like he was so pure of heart. I think everybody should have a little bit of Terry inside them to motivate themselves.”

Now, she’s taking that advocacy to the next level, as she begins her first year of law school at the University of Ottawa.

She wants to become a lawyer but is also keeping her options open. The study of law attracts her because of what she can do with the lessons she will learn.

“A law degree is so broad, you can do any number of things with it. There is a strong element of advocacy involved in being a lawyer, at least in the kind of law that involves activism, where you’re standing up for people who are marginalized. In that arena, if you really want to do effective work that is long lasting, then you need to know the legal implications of it. It almost gives you more power to help people.”

She’s specific about advocacy that isn’t her telling people what to do – but just doing what needs to be done.

“I don't like to speak for other people, unless I have been specifically elected by them to act as a representative after extensive consultation. I prefer to give my own perspective and if people happen to identify with that, then maybe that can help them.”

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