Meet Rachel Bender (’23), the Lutheran Elementary and Special Education major who followed God’s leading to grow from a nervous, uncertain freshman to a confident, compassionate, award-winning leader.

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of stories highlighting a few Concordia’s uncommon May 2023 graduates. Faculty and staff submit candidates for consideration. Stories are posted in the days leading up to commencement. View more uncommon graduates here

As a self-described introvert and homebody, Rachel Bender, born and raised in Vermilion, Ohio, had every intention of staying close to home for college. But God, she soon discovered, had other ideas.

With a strong Lutheran upbringing, it of course made sense for her to at least visit Concordia University Wisconsin. It was her first official college visit, but she knew immediately it was a special place.

“At first, I thought maybe it was just the initial excitement of being on a college campus,” Rachel said. “The more I visited other colleges, I tried to, like, force myself to think ‘it’s fine.’ But I couldn’t see myself not having such a strong faith-based community like I saw at CUW.”

For the record, she did also visit Concordia Ann Arbor, but things just didn’t resonate there the way things did at Wisconsin, where “it felt like home, right from the get-go.”

“I’m so grateful for my decision to go here,” she said, “because I would not be who I am now if it wasn’t for Concordia,” she said.

Leading by doing

The person she is now is a respected servant leader, loved by her peers, who is eager to pitch in and do whatever needs to get done, while always reflecting the praise to others and the glory to God. But that’s now how things started.

“I’m so grateful for my decision to go here, because I would not be who I am if it wasn’t for Concordia.”

Rachel Bender (’23)

When she first landed on our scenic bluff, Rachel was just another nervous freshman, one who didn’t really know anybody and wasn’t sure how to go about getting involved. Like so many others, her first friends were fellow freshmen in her dorm, Wittenberg Hall. She had a lot of classes with two in particular, Katie and Grace, so they started doing things together, having meals and going to Chapel. The morning services quickly became part of her daily routine.

Rachel surrounded by other members of the 2022-23 CMLT Coordinating Council.

“Oh, I get to do this every day, not just on a Sunday, that’s really cool!” she recalls thinking.

In high school, sports provided community. She played soccer and basketball, though knee injuries forced her out for most of her sophomore and senior years. That time on the sidelines wasn’t wasted, however. God used that time to build leadership skills and teach her how to support people and make connections off the field.

“It turned into opportunities to lead a Bible study, be a mentor for people, and just see how God was using me,” Rachel said. “I really looked up to those coaches and other people who encouraged me, so when I was injured I wanted to be that person for those who were still playing.”

At CUW, that helpful attitude led her to become involved in Campus Ministry, first in the Youth Ministry (Y-Min), and later as part of the Campus Ministry Leadership Team (CMLT). Her junior year she became the program’s administrative assistant, where her strong organizational skills helped get her in touch with every branch of Campus Ministry. For the 2022-23 school year, she was elected CMLT president.

As if that’s not enough, she also got involved with Intergen, a multi-generational women’s mentoring program run by CUW’s Women’s Leadership Institute (WLI). Her service to that organization resulted in her receiving the WLI’s Donna J. Streufert Women’s Leadership Award, presented to “a female student who exemplifies servant leadership as demonstrated by Christ.”

“Rachel is a servant first, but also someone who is always willing to step in and put in the extra work to make sure an initiative is a success,” said Darcy Paape, director of the WLI. “She is the kind of student leader that positively impacts whatever room she enters. We are so proud of her and excited to see where the Lord leads her in her future teaching call.”

Strong family ties

To understand Rachel’s heart, you first have to understand what she left in Ohio. Rachel’s passion for teaching, special education in particular, comes from her close relationship with her younger sister. Lauren, 19, is on the autism spectrum and has other disabilities. Growing up, Rachel loved nothing more than helping and teaching Lauren, both in general life skills and by playing what they called “Rachel’s School.”

Rachel’s family—including Lauren, parents Dave and Kendis, and older brothers Eric and Alex—is a big part of what made it so hard to leave Ohio. Her plan has always been to return, possibly sooner than later. In fact, she originally planned to return home to do her student teaching. But Rachel is the kind of person who understands that God’s plans don’t always line up with our own.

Rachel’s love of dogs led to her involvement (before she got too busy with CMLT) in CUW’s Comfort Dog Club. She was also part of the first cohort to earn Concordia’s canine-oriented Compassion Care Certificate.

“I made a deal with myself,” she recalled. “I’ll run for CMLT president, and if God wants me to be president, He’ll make it happen. And there were some really good candidates! If not, I’ll just go home spring semester and student teach. That was the plan.”

Getting elected was very humbling, she said. In fact, it came as something of a shock.

“I was like, ‘okay, this is real. We’re really going to do this!’” she recalled. “I didn’t plan for it, but I knew God was going to use me and work through me. And I’m so thankful to Him for that, for all His works and things in my life that He’s done and blessed me with.”

It may have surprised Rachel, but it didn’t surprise those around her.

“Rachel has proven herself to be an extraordinary leader on campus,” said Rev. Doug Bender (no relation), CUW’s associate campus pastor. “In a difficult year of rebounding from the global pandemic, when many of our campus ministries and activities had to change or cease for a time, Rachel has led us back into a year full of great opportunities and experiences for her fellow students to experience community and ministry in a rich, inviting way.

“She has a genuine passion for faith and serves with all humility. She strives to see her peers excel around her, and does so in a faithful, consistent manner.”

Ohio will have to wait

As for what’s next after CUW, God again seems to have a different idea—at least for the short term. Rachel has accepted a teaching position at First Immanuel Lutheran School in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. She’ll be teaching seventh and eighth grade math and STEM classes, along with sixth-grade religion and some other student support opportunities. It’s not quite special ed, but it’s definitely a step in the direction she wants to go.

Kendis, Dave, Rachel, and Lauren Bender on the CUW bluff.

And if there’s one thing she’s learned during her years at Concordia, the easy or obvious path is seldom the best path.

“I would say now that going to Concordia was probably the best decision in my life—but I couldn’t tell you that right from freshman year,” Rachel said. “It was really hard. But I’ve learned so much and grown so much, in my studies and in how to be a better person as a whole, and with my faith, and through all the opportunities Concordia has offered.”

Her advice to younger students? Take chances. Try things. Get involved. And listen for God’s leading. “Even if you’re not comfortable or it feels overwhelming, try it out and see what happens. Because God’s going to use you just like He’s used me in so many different ways.”

It’s probably fair to say she’s lived up to the challenge of her favorite Bible verse, 1 Timothy 4:12, which reads, “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (NIV)

Sounds like a pretty good plan, doesn’t it? In fact, you might just say it’s perfect.

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