How my struggle made me stronger

Angie Bartelt

I am an orphan. I do not have curly red hair, nor do I hang around old, rich, white men singing songs about the sun. I am a first generation college graduate, and my only similarity to little orphan Annie is the turbulent road both our stories have followed along.

In only a couple weeks, I will be graduating from Alabama. It has not been easy, but then again most journeys are not.

It is not a simple task to be so drastically different from your peers and by nature be outgoing and talkative. In high school, I was bullied to no end. Referred to as a “dirty-haired orphan,” I struggled with finding my place in my community. I have always been open about my life. My father died in a motorcycle accident when I was two years old, and my mother was murdered when I was nine years old. This openness more often than not causes those listening to visibly recoil. In fact, teachers more often than not show signs of immediate panic when I tell them, as sometimes the discussion of family comes up in class. Adults in my life assumed I had less than average intelligence and often gave up on me before I had the chance to prove them wrong. The fear of being honest came from a place of feeling rejected, something my many foster homes had made a constant in my young life. I have spent more than half of my life in fear of losing another person I love, because all too often it seems that is the outcome anyway. With that mindset, it would be fair to assume I have grown cold and distant, putting myself up against a world that could never understand, and has not seemed to even want to try.

But my time at Alabama changed all of that. I moved to Tuscaloosa because I chased a boy. I am not exactly proud of that, but I have no regret. Upon my arrival to a part of the country I had only ever seen in my mind from the words of Harper Lee’s imagination, I was determined to adopt the culture. I was going to use this drastic change in scenery as a chance to be someone else, someone who wasn’t so different and strange. By doing that, I suffered more than I had when I was myself. In trying to keep up with my peers who had families and money and support, I became bitter and jealous. By the time my boyfriend broke up with me, I had no friends and nowhere to live. I slept on benches and in secluded corners of campus. I cried myself to sleep often because the only person I had was myself, and I didn’t know her anymore. 

It was then that I found the Mallet Assembly – a group of amazing, interesting, and intelligent individuals who accepted me at my worst and made me a leader. I took that support and ran to the mountain. I began telling my story without fear or anxiety. I spoke about my story in classes, hesitant at first. Once I saw only kindness I realized I that here I would not be ostracized for my blunt story-telling and I could, for once in my life, be myself around my peers. I opened up at public forums and community-based speaking events about my journey, and I was shocked to find that other students, faculty and members of the community welcomed me with open arms and shared their own lives with me in return. I will never forget giving a Tide Talk in 2014 – afterwards a young woman approached me with caution and determination in her eyes. She thanked me for my candid and funny speech on overcoming circumstances, and then told me she too recently lost her parents and had been contemplating ending her life, but that my story had brought light into her darkness and she wanted to keep fighting forward. That moment, I knew that my fears had been wrong all along.

It has been challenging to be little orphan Angie. It is a life I would not wish upon anyone, not even those who were once cruel to me. Although it can be difficult to be so drastically different, there are always other men and women who are fighting silently in the dark. To have a voice for the voiceless is a gift I am forever humbled to possess. I am forever grateful that my time at UA has allowed me to be part of a bigger story – a contrasting rainbow of life, rather than a color block of sameness. 

Angie Bartelt is a senior majoring in political science. She has served as an executive officer of the Mallet Assembly and the student spokesperson for Alabama REACH. After graduation, she plans to apply for law school.