As midterms slowly kick in, students flood the hallways of different buildings hoping to get their many questions answered by professors and teaching assistants during their office hours. How many times have you wondered what the most interesting thing that your TAs have done in the past was, or the work they have done to make campus a better environment for everybody?
Meet Melissa Barthelemy, the lead TA in the University of California, Santa Barbara’s history department, a core organizer of September’s Concert Across America To End Gun Violence concert, and recipient of the 2015-2016 Margaret T. Getman Service to Students Award. These are just a few of Barthelemy’s many accomplishments during her time with the Gaucho community.
Growing up in Ojai, Calif., Barthelemy’s family owned a house in the Los Padres National Forest where she spent much of her time in the wild. At an early age, Barthelemy walked alongside the river with her siblings and explored acres and acres of land. Without a television in the house, Barthelemy described her childhood as “adventurous.”
“One time I was walking my brothers to the bus station down the hill and there was a river that we had to cross … I accidentally fell into the river and I did not know I was not supposed to cross it until my parents told me later,” Barthelemy recalled as her most memorable experience in the forest.
At the age of 17, Barthelemy took on her first ever backpacking trip to Europe, staying with her family while traveling extensively on her own. As far as exciting adventures went, though, it was New Zealand that claimed the podium.
“Underground cave rafting … was my most memorable adventure, because we were in wetsuits sitting on inner tubes paddling through a dark underground cave that has a river flowing through it. We just had lights on our helmets but other than that it was very dark. I absolutely loved it.” Barthelemy goes on, “If I lived in that part of the world I would be exploring that cave all of the time … I am a bit of a daredevil.”
Fast forward to years later, Barthelemy holds a special place in many UCSB students’ hearts for all the work she has done for the Gaucho community, especially after the 2014 Isla Vista shootings.
In the wake of the tragedy, Barthelemy’s immediate thought was to assist students in any way possible. She left chalk, paper and markers at spontaneous memorial sites, giving students a medium to communicate their thoughts and feelings. The condolence items are now housed at the UCSB Library’s Department of Special Research Collections.
“It was really just a matter of responding to a crisis, without any future plan, and things snowballed from there,” Barthelemy said. “It is … a reminder of the importance of speaking out — if students hadn’t asked me to save these items they would have been lost forever.”
Nearly three years after the tragedy that took several UCSB students’ lives, Barthelemy continues to make sure the voices of many students and parents are heard. From September’s Concert Across America to End Gun Violence to the most recent Tim Wise talk as part of the Resilient Love in a Time of Hate series, Barthelemy has taken leadership roles in events to promote love and care from the UCSB community to across the nation.
According to Barthelemy, “the concert is one of the many examples in which we are honoring the memories of the victims by advocating for gun violence prevention, so that other families don’t have to experience a similar senseless and tragic loss.”
Barthelemy’s work to better the UCSB environment and neighboring communities have led to her nomination and ultimately receiving the Margaret T. German Service to Students Award, a recognition designed to honor UCSB staff, faculty, and departments for demonstrating an extraordinary commitment to the general growth and development of students and the quality of student life.
Inside the classroom, Barthelemy has been a TA for classes in the history, feminist studies, and English departments. She sees teaching as a way to “build community together and develop our best selves.”
“Several times I have had a student say that I am the most inspiring teacher they have ever had, and that means everything to me. It is a two-way street, I inspire my students, and they inspire me,” Barthelemy recalled as her favorite moments as a teaching assistant. She hoped her students to realize the amount of control they have in their learning process.
Barthelemy says the meaningful part of her work is to have a lasting impact on her students.
“For me, the most memorable part of being a TA is having a big effect on my students in terms of how they see their life outside the classroom,” she said. “I have been able to help some of my students figure out their career goals, and have helped them get into graduate programs and jobs once they graduate.”
As a Ph.D. student, Barthelemy can also be found busy working on her research. Her dissertation is titled “The Humanity of Loss: Memory and Politics in the Wake of School Shootings.”
“I am looking at how the concept of ‘school shootings’ has evolved over time, and how school communities have engaged in memorial projects in the aftermath of such violence,” said Barthelemy, using the 2014 Isla Vista tragedy as her primary case study.
Having the opportunity to teach has allowed Barthelemy to empathize with the experiences of undergraduate students; collaborating with undergraduate interns on different projects have influenced her dissertation work.
“I always want people and their personal experiences to be at the center of the historical research and writing that I do.” Barthelemy said, “For me it is always about the importance of discovering deeper meanings, and bringing stories to the surface that otherwise wouldn’t see the light of the day.”
Barthelemy hoped that the exchange of ideas helps build compassion and empathy, “because we are continually seeing things from someone else’s perspective.”
Over the past year, Barthelemy increased her activism work, dedicated to campus building and eliminating factors that have traditionally divided our community.
“It is essential that our university be a place where ALL students feel supported, respected, and encouraged, and where we recognize diversity as our greatest strength,” she said in reference to current campus and national political climate.
After a long day at school, Barthelemy is greeted by her wife and their three guinea pigs upon returning home. Together, they also “grow lots of vegetables in [their] community garden plot that [they] donate to the bunnies and guinea pigs at the (Bunnies Urgently in Need of) Shelter.”
In Barthelemy’s eyes, though, her achievements are just the cherry on top when “[being] true to yourself is enough.”