‘From ordinary to extraordinary.’ Graduating class speaker Rachel Bartell shares how she is Rising as a Phoenix

Graduate Rachel Bartell captivated the hundreds in attendance during UW-Green Bay’s morning commencement ceremony on Saturday, December 16, 2023.

In her opening remarks, she shared her initial “arrogance” as a fresh-out-of-high-school first year student on campus followed by the heartbreak that caused her to drop out after a couple of short years. Eight years later and in a better place physically, mentally and financially, Rachel spoke of her resilience, grit and determination to gain her bachelor’s degree. Inspiring and congratulating her fellow graduates, she ended her time at UW-Green Bay with the following sentiment: “…it [UW-Green Bay] has allowed me to rise from the ashes of my tumultuous past and redefine myself, like a phoenix. I am proud to now call it my alma mater.”

Please read Rachel’s full remarks below. 

The opening lines to one of my absolute favorite bands’ songs is, “When I started this story in the middle of the page, I remembered the lines and forgot my age, and somebody said my attitude was snotty.” I couldn’t help but think of this lyric when I was notified I had been chosen as the speaker for this commencement. In many ways my UWGB story does start in “the middle of the page.”

I originally enrolled at UWGB in the Fall of 2008. I was fresh out of high school, an “adult,” and I had it all figured out. I was an omniscient, arrogant 18-year-old who knew better than everyone else and no one could tell me different. In other words, I was a snot. I suppose you could say I was my own anti-hero. I reluctantly started my college career here with the full intention of leaving within the next year but the realities of everyday life, especially during the Great Recession, were almost paralyzing; it’s difficult to move to California when you’re searching your car for loose change just to buy a couple gallons of gas at almost five dollars a gallon. I quickly lost interest in my studies at UWGB and, within a couple of years and a sprinkle of academic probation as the proverbial cherry on top, I eventually dropped out. I do not consider this to be my UWGB story, but we’ll get to that in a second. However, it was the beginning of the page referenced in my opening song lyric.

In 2012 at the age of 22, I went through what remains one of the toughest times in my life. I, as well as my partner at the time, had been dealing with substance abuse issues for several years by then. Luckily, I made it out alive, but my partner did not, and I suffered both personal and legal ramifications because of it. These events put any plans I had for my life to a screeching halt and at barely 23 years old, I felt hopeless, lost, and alone.

It took me about eight years to overcome mental, emotional and financial barriers that were impeding my metamorphosis. I re-enrolled at UWGB in the Spring of 2020 (yes, thepandemic semester, which was just awesome, by the way!) and after the enormous anxiety of my first semester back in college had worn off, I do feel like “I remembered the lines and forgot my age.” I took to the rhythms of being a full-time student all too well: agenda planners to track my assignments, big, bright red lettering to mark exam and paper due dates, endless nights staying up reading, crying, then continuing to read again because, despite the stress I was feeling, I knew it was all worth it – I had already experienced what wasn’t. I put everything into being a student, and this time around a good one, and for a time I forgot that I was a decade-plus older than most of my peers, who were doing the exact same things I was. Beginning at age 30 and now 33 years old, I reclaimed my college career and along with that my feelings, experiences, and growth here at UWGB. This is all part of what I consider to be my UWGB story, even if it did start in the middle of the page.

A short time ago I needed to obtain a few letters of recommendation for something really important. Though I likely only needed three or four, I got eleven letters – eleven people who could attest to my character, integrity, perseverance, and determination to become my best self. These people ranged from my family, best friends who knew my destructive self years ago but stuck with me until I rebuilt myself, several highly-esteemed professors from UWGB, and even a Wisconsin State Representative. One letter in particular though had me sobbing like a die-hard Packers fan after a loss, and it came from one of my two amazing brothers, who also graduated from UWGB – the following excerpt from it explains what this school means to me, probably better than I could have ever articulated.

“No matter how hard things became for her, Rachel kept pushing forward and began to meet problems head on. She has developed into an amazing student, something my former professors bring up to me when I visit with them. They comment on how diligent she is with herstudies, her wisdom, and how she’s a joy to have in class. These attributes and characteristics are the intangibles she has always had, yet lost for a period of time.”

In other words, UWGB helped turn me into a version of my best self, though of course, one has to keep working on themselves consistently in order to grow and I am no exception.

Shortly after returning to school, I learned of the Democracy and Justice Studies major and flourished in its courses. I also rediscovered my passion for politics and organizing in being the Co-President of the College Democrats student organization here on campus, helping to bring a number of political candidates to the student community to facilitate education on various issues. I found that being an advocate and liaison for my peers through a peer mentoring program was rewarding in ways I had not yet experienced – I was, for them, the person I had needed back in 2008 and having that ability was a full-circle moment for me. Former Senator Nina Turner came to UWGB as part of a speaker series and said something that was so simple, yet made me perceive everything through a different lens. She said, “When people put a little extra on their ordinary, extraordinary things can and will happen.”

I felt it important to share this quote with my fellow graduating class who, through obviously no fault of their own, simply do not possess the various life experiences and wisdom which only come with time. But while we’re all embarking on our new journeys, whether it be grad school, law school, or working in the professional world, we must remember that quote. I did not know it or even understand it at the time, but I did put a little extra on my ordinary and through doing so, conquered an impossible set of circumstances. To my peers and fellow graduates, you all have the capability to do extraordinary things in life. As the great poet and modern sage of our time, Taylor Swift says, “Long live all the mountains we’ve moved, I had the time of my life fighting dragons with you.”

It has truly been an honor to study here at UWGB and work amongst so many gifted people; it has allowed me to rise from the ashes of my tumultuous past and redefine myself, like a phoenix. I am proud to now call it my alma mater.Thank you.

Read more about Rachel here.

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