Man in blue shirt holding hand rail

Defying the odds ...

By

Marshall Terrill

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Odds often define people.

But Arizona State University senior Tristan Bartels has managed to defy the odds of his trajectory.

The odds he faced were quite staggering: At 8, he was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Later came a math disability and a social anxiety disorder diagnosis. He also developed a stutter.

On May 11, he will receive a bachelor’s degree in political science in the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. He is now headed to law school.

“I have embraced my academic journey with all its highs and lows,” said the 22-year-old student, who has attended ASU at Lake Havasu since 2018 and will watch the spring 2020 commencement online. “But I made it my mission to overcome these limitations and arrive at some semblance of normalcy.”

That’s an understatement.

Bartels is graduating with a 3.9 GPA, and he made the Dean’s List twice while at ASU. According to Raymond Van der Riet, director of ASU at Lake Havasu, Bartels is a strong representative of the university.

“Tristan reaffirms our sense that individuals can empower themselves to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others. He has intentionally embraced his life circumstances and is truly dedicated to his chosen path of service,” Van der Riet said. “With our strong mentorship culture and experiential orientation, ASU at Lake Havasu proved the perfect setting for Tristan to test and validate his commitment to a life of service. I am confident Tristan will have great impact in his legal career. This graduate proudly embodies our lofty ASU aspirations.”

Bartels’ path was not an easy one. In grade school he was placed in special education classes, which caused him a great deal of personal embarrassment.

“I was always embarrassed by this fact and routinely lied to my fellow classmates about my whereabouts during the day,” Bartels said. “I was not the ‘traditional student’ or the ‘regular kid.’ I was different and it troubled me beyond measure. I kept up the façade for a long time and tried to sweep it under the rug. I was determined to reintegrate into regular classes and blend into the general student body.”

That meant great sacrifice in learning how to engage in social interaction and spending extra hours catching up on English, reading comprehension, history and his biggest academic roadblock — math. His mother’s advice especially stuck with him.

“She told me that I couldn’t allow Asperger's syndrome to be my crutch and pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Bartels said. “I have always envisioned myself doing great things and wanted more for my life.”

It helped that he had a supportive family and that his mother, Nadine, is a veteran grade school teacher who has experience with students with autism. She specifically worked with him on "social training" and reading comprehension.

“Social training is basically a game of ‘What if?’ What if you are in a restaurant and need to ask for a napkin? What if you are in a classroom and needed to ask the teacher a question? What if you’re at a birthday party and you’re the center of attention?” Nadine Bartels said. “People with Asperger's syndrome don’t have those natural instincts like others, so these are the things they have to be taught.”

Nadine Bartels also pushed her son to improve his comprehension, and said Tristan could not read fluently until the eighth grade. But once he started to read on his own, he couldn’t stop.

“Tristan totally immersed himself in reading and a whole new world opened up to him,” she said. “It was a real turning point for him academically.”

Bartels graduated from Lake Havasu City High School in May 2016. That summer, when he turned 18, he discovered a passion for politics and public service.

He enrolled at Mohave Community College that summer. He spent a good deal of time his time that semester canvassing door-to-door for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. He says it was a tough sell in a predominantly Republican area, but it quickly taught him lessons in civility.

“Knocking on the doors of random strangers homes is a hard sell but people were nice because I think they were impressed that someone so young was interested in the political system,” Bartels said. “I learned that I can articulate things I’m passionate about but that I also needed to dial down my feelings and not be so forceful when it comes to my feelings. I was much more liberal than I am now.”

Bartels soon found his niche on the Lake Havasu campus and co-founded ASU Havasu Politikos, a political science club with three other people. The university also arranged an internship for him with Lake Havasu City Mayor Cal Sheehy, which gave him insight and perspective on public servanthood.

“It opened my eyes to the inner workings of our democracy at the ground level and the sacrifices of those who hold public office,” said Bartels, who counts Sheehy as an important mentor in his life. “I was inspired to make a difference and be a part of this important process.”

Sheehy said he has no doubt that Bartels will accomplish his goal if he chooses to pursue a career in public service.

“Tristan exemplifies what a public servant can be and what a public servant should be,” Sheehy said. “He has the spirit of the community and the art of collaboration and communication. He’ll be a strong asset to any community in which he serves.”

Bartels has two standing offers from law schools from his list of five. Both are offering scholarships. His mother is still in a state of delighted disbelief.  

“My husband and I were driving in the car the other day and looked at each other and I said, ‘He’s going to law school,’” Nadine Bartels said. “It’s been a dream of ours and it’s finally been validated … but it still feels like a dream.”

Bartels said he’ll use his law degree for one main purpose — to help and serve others.

“I don’t really care about saving the world,” Bartels said. “I care more about serving the world. I feel as if I have a unique set of talents and I need to use them to help people.”

Top photo: Lake Havasu City resident and graduating senior Tristan Bartels overcame the challenges that come with a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome to graduate with a 3.9 GPA. His immediate goal is to attend law school, then work to improve his community by being a political advocate. He's photographed on the ASU at Lake Havasu campus, Tuesday Feb. 11, 2020. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now