Meet 2023 graduating class speaker Rachel Bartell

Rachel Bartell will be speaking at the morning commencement ceremony on December 16, 2023 at 9:30 a.m. The Weidner.


Spring on the UW-Green Bay campus, typically a time for leisurely walks across its 700 park-like acres, was shrouded in an eerie quiet in 2021. Once bustling lecture halls were empty. The popular, well-attended class DJS 101: Introduction to Democracy and Justice Studies—historically a dynamic exchange among professors, peer mentors, and around 70 students—had morphed into a collection of individuals staring at their computer screens. This cornerstone course for future law, politics, and social service professionals had moved online.

Among those DJS students was Rachel Bartell, returning to college after an eight-year absence. She also took on the role of one of two peer success mentors, tasked with connecting with students who might be struggling in the class—a challenging assignment while also reacclimating to college life.

“DJS 101. That class was taught very differently,” Bartell recalls. “Each of the professors in the department would teach for two or two and a half weeks to showcase what the major is all about.” A decade earlier, Bartell was a fresh from high school Phoenix with a completely different major in mind. “I had wanted to do acting. My whole thing was I wanted to go to California.”

Now, amid a pandemic, she was a returning student. The departure eight years earlier was due to a more personally life-altering event than even a pandemic—the tragic accidental death of a close friend. Bartell is unflinchingly honest when describing the impact of the tragedy. “It just stopped my education.” She returned home and found solace in friends and family. “They helped get me through those really dark times. Without them, I don’t know what I would have done.”

But Bartell hadn’t yet decided on her next steps. “The plan was always to finish my degree. I just didn’t know what I wanted to do after my life had turned upside down.” The Hollywood dream had faded. “I had to go through a process of basically finding myself again.”

Now she was back in school, and although she was no longer pursuing acting, her role had changed. She was needed by both students and professors. Katia Levintova, Professor of Political Science and Global Studies, and one of the professors in the DJS class, recognized Bartell’s value immediately. “It is a big class,” Levintova admits. “It’s difficult to know what’s going on with students in such a big class unless you ask.” So, she hired Bartell to start asking.

Bartell’s charge, along with fellow peer mentor Abby Tower, was to address the fears, anxieties, and learning challenges of their classmates. “We were there for the students to come to if they had questions or if they didn’t understand something.” And there were many questions. Perhaps because she was an “older” student, other students gravitated toward Bartell for help. “Often, they were afraid to ask the professor about things—I think they were nervous.”

One incident that stands out to Bartell was assisting a student overwhelmed with stress. “(The student) was going through a mental health-type situation and didn’t know what to do… I said ‘You’ve got to contact the professor and don’t be afraid to do that. They’re very understanding.’ She helped her get an extension,” Bartell shared. More importantly, she directed the student to additional support services.

Her final grade as a peer mentor? Professor Levintova notes, “I think that was probably one of the highest completion rates of this class. Rachel rose like a Phoenix, reinventing herself as a student and a professional.”

From there, Bartell’s resume tells the story of a tireless dynamo. Her exploration of a law career began with an internship in the autumn of 2021 at Hanaway Ross Law Firm. Not long after, Professor Levintova referred her to Petit & Dommershausen Law Offices, where she secured a full-time position. But Bartell’s interests weren’t confined to just the legal field. As president of the UWGB College Democrats and a member of the UWGB Law Society, she cultivated political and legal engagement among her peers.

Her proactive drive reached beyond personal goals and into the wider community. She lent her skills to Kristina Shelton’s reelection campaign for the Wisconsin state assembly, amplifying her voice from local grassroots canvassing to the state political stage. Throughout this journey, her career focus evolved from law to social justice.

“I want to help people who don’t have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Bartell explains. While dreams of Hollywood or the Supreme Court might not be in her future, Bartell remains committed to continual learning. “I do want to apply to grad school,” she confesses, “although, I’m not quite sure which path I want to pursue yet.”

But this time, she’s not afraid to seek advice. “I feel like my professors have really invested in me, and they genuinely care about my well-being and the direction of my education.” They’re not beyond giving Bartell her recipe for success. “They check in with me now and then. So, at this point, they’re more like friends.”

As Bartell contemplates the future, the direction may still be unclear, but her resolve is certain. The journey of the Phoenix has instilled in her a purpose that transcends any particular path: to enrich the lives of others. Challenges have fostered a steadfast commitment to advocacy and support, ensuring that whatever steps she takes next, they will be aimed at elevating those around her.

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