Class of 2021: A Student's Commitment to Truth and Passion for Equity

From UVA history to education in prisons, Rachel Walet is unafraid to tackle tough issues.

Rachel Walet
Batten student Rachel Walet (MPP ‘21). (Contributed Photo)

Rachel Walet (MPP ‘21) spent much of the last semester interviewing people about a thorny subject: education in Virginia’s prisons. A moment from her conversation with John Donnelly, vice president for instruction and student services at Piedmont Virginia Community College, stands out to her still. 

“He told me, ‘If I wouldn’t offer a course to people outside prisons, then I don’t want to offer it to students inside prisons, either,” she said. 

Those words have guided Walet as she continues to work on her Applied Policy Project, an assignment that pairs Batten students with organizations looking to solve tough policy challenges. Her client is Resilience Education, a program that sends MBA students into prisons to teach business classes.

Even before she began that assignment, Walet had a passion for equity—and for confronting the truth. In 2019, she volunteered with the University Guide Service, designing and leading tours that grappled with the more difficult parts of University of Virginia history, covering things like the school’s connection to eugenics and its history of excluding women and people of color.

She remembers that one tour participant accused her of hating UVA afterward. “I was initially crushed,” Walet said. But ultimately, she feels glad that her tours have provided food for thought. “No, I don't hate UVA,” she continued. “But I do think it's important to air things out and talk about them. That’s the way you build a better school for the future.”

Raised in Nebraska, Walet is a self-described “proud Midwesterner,” always ready to sing the praises of her home city, Omaha, and to help confused East Coasters locate her state on a map. In high school, Walet competed in extemporaneous speaking events, writing and delivering speeches on current news topics. Her AP Government teacher encouraged her to pursue a career in the political arena. 

“I remember he called one of my papers ‘well-researched and even-keeled,’ she said. “He wrote, ‘We need more young people like you in politics.’” But in Walet’s case, her interest in improving society pushed her toward policy instead. She remembers feeling unenthused about political theory classes as an undergraduate. 

“They just seemed so up in the air to me,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘In real time, people are living in poverty. What are we going to do about that?’”

Today, Walet is an Echols Scholar and an accelerated Master of Public Policy student. Early on, Walet chose to fast-track her education: Once she graduates in May, she will have completed both a graduate and an undergraduate degree in just four years. “I am a bit of a ‘go-getter’ when it comes to academic and other challenges,” Walet said. “I prefer to attack hard things, rather than ignore them.”

At Batten, Walet has taken that approach in her work with Resilience Education, which was recently forced to suspend its courses. Due to the pandemic, many Virginia prisons have banned in-person instruction, but most don’t offer the kind of technology access that incarcerated individuals need to attend classes virtually. 

“It speaks to a larger issue: We don’t have a robust system for bringing education to people who are in prison,” Walet said.

As she researches the problem, Walet has found that while in some states incarcerated individuals can use laptops or computer labs, in others—like Virginia—they often can’t. Even in Virginia correctional facilities where adequate technology is permitted, people frequently have to buy it themselves or pay per hour to use it, which many can’t afford to do.

The experience has inspired Walet to reflect on what a good education means in 2021 and to consider what keeps incarcerated individuals in Virginia from getting it. “Every single classroom in the country has some form of technology, or should have it,” she said. “Do we really want to be offering some kind of lesser education?” Without computers or internet access, incarcerated students spend unnecessary time on the laborious task of handwriting papers, and they struggle to perform the rigorous academic research that will enable them to succeed. 

“Rather than offering just any education, we should be talking about quality, not just quantity,” Walet said. “We want to give incarcerated individuals a good education, and technology plays a huge role in that.”

After thoroughly investigating the problem, Walet will spend the next month or so doing what she loves most—figuring out how to fix it. The task is daunting, but she’s confident that the skills she has acquired at Batten will stand her in good stead, just as they did when she was designing her tours of Grounds. Over time, Walet says, she’s learned to see the many sides to every story and to “raise the flag” whenever a narrative—whether it’s that UVA is a perfect institution or that incarcerated individuals don’t need a stellar education—seems too simple or straightforward. 

“Batten has taught me to be a skeptic,” she said. “I’ve learned that it’s important and necessary to speak up and speak out.”

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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