An Explorer at Heart, International Student Blazes Unique Path

Elena Bauer embraces expansive opportunities to benefit communities and develop well-rounded skills

UM law student Elena Bauer makes a presentation at the university’s 2018 Tech Summit. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services.

OXFORD, Miss. – Elena Bauer never imagined she would live in Mississippi. A dual citizen of Germany and the U.S., she spent her childhood moving back and forth between Europe and the states while her parents – Haitian-American and German – pursued careers in academia.

The second-year student in the University of Mississippi School of Law has embraced a path of higher learning that has broadened her experience and opened countless doors for the future.

A 2017 graduate of the UM Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, Bauer majored in business management and minored in mathematics. While at the Honors College, she worked closely with the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement and was a finalist for the Truman Scholarship.

“Elena Bauer represents the kind of student who walks into your office and you sense immediately her grit, her drive, her determination,” said Douglass Sullivan-Gonzalez, Honors College dean. “Elena has a rare talent to see the proverbial ‘forests and trees,’ the general vision and the particular steps required to execute an idea to change lives.

“She is in many ways a student of the future – her pilgrimage spans continents and bridges many diverse groups, both economically and linguistically. What a pleasure it is to see Elena at the door of the office, ready to dive deep into conversation about the challenges of our world.”

A Catalyzing Entrepreneurship and Economic Development scholarship through the McLean Institute provided funds to cover Bauer’s undergraduate tuition. The CEED scholarship gave Bauer an opportunity to lead the McLean Entrepreneurship Leadership Program, a high school statewide initiative.

While in the program, she used virtual reality technology to help high school students in Clarksdale have immersive experiences of far-off locations, including the coast of Thailand; East St. Louis, Illinois; and Bauer’s hometown of Freiburg, Germany.

As a first-generation biracial and bilingual American and the product of world travels, Bauer hoped that an experience outside Mississippi could provide fresh perspectives for students who had never been outside the state.

Another motivation behind the virtual reality experience was to give students from underserved communities an unprecedented opportunity to explore places outside their living situations. The program also focused on introducing students to entrepreneurial concepts.

“Elena continues to engage in the McLean Institute’s mission to offer educational programs that make opportunities better for Mississippians,” said Albert Nylander, director of the McLean Institute. “During her three years at the institute, she has improved the university’s community engagement efforts.

“Her leading the McLean Institute’s summer leadership program was exceptional. High school students across the state learned the principles of entrepreneurship and how to start a business.” 

Bauer attended high school in both Freiburg and Champaign, Illinois. She first came to Mississippi as a volunteer with Habitat for Humanity in Clarksdale. A competitive swimmer with Olympic ambitions, she suffered a life-changing shoulder displacement that thwarted her athletic aspirations and left her feeling disheartened.

A compassionate teacher urged her to pursue volunteering as a reparative force. Once in Clarksdale, she quickly fell in love with the city and its people.

“The first time I was in Clarksdale, I thought, ‘I didn’t realize people lived like this.’ And then I didn’t realize people could still be so happy,” Bauer said. “Before I went there, I was moping – everything was about me.

“It was such a shift in perspective, to realize people did not have things I took for granted. My identity was all wrapped up in sports at that time. It was a very big shift for me.”

After high school, Bauer returned to Germany. She was uncertain about her future and decided to take a gap year. Although a European education was appealing – largely for its low cost – she knew she wanted to make a difference in the Clarksdale community and felt a strong pull to return to Mississippi.

She also knew the United States embraced a more open-ended approach to higher education, giving students freedom to explore different areas of study before determining a degree path.

“I was drawn to the flexibility and freedom to change your major and figure out what you want to do, and the accessibility to change routes,” Bauer said. “I visited Ole Miss and realized how much I liked it here and all of the resources that would be available to me.”

Bauer was also drawn to the community of UM and the city of Oxford. She sees the community’s inclusive and positive atmosphere as one of the highlights of her student experience.

“I feel at home in both Ole Miss and Oxford – it’s manageable and friendly and you can feel at home in the entire town,” she said. “I like the family feel of Ole Miss. It’s everywhere I go – at the law school, at the Honors College and at the business school.

“Everyone seems to be rooting for you and everyone seems to know you. Everyone seems to be happy that they’re here.”

Bauer remains open-minded about her future professional goals. She has worked with the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics’ Academic Enrichment Program as a tutor for student-athletes, has supervised a caseload of student-athletes and works in the athletics compliance office. She continues to receive support from the McLean Institute toward her law school studies.

Bauer is also an intern to the public defender for Lafayette County. A previous internship with a firm in Birmingham, Alabama, representing a major German automobile maker felt like a “little piece of Germany in America” and a way to use her bilingual skills professionally.

Still, she wants to keep her options open and will do another internship – with a civil rights firm – next summer.

Bauer credits the diversity of experiences she’s had at the university with helping her become a well-rounded adult who understands the importance of balancing independent success with serving the greater needs of a community. She believes law school has balanced her undergraduate experiences with skills that can help her make an even greater impact as a professional.

“With community service, you take a very on-the-grounds hands-on approach, and in higher education, it’s more top-down,” she said. “As a lawyer, you’re operating within the law and big picture, capturing the balance between both worlds.

“I believe that the practice of law is a great vehicle for helping individuals and thereby possibly improving the quality of life for communities across the state.”

Besides her many academic and professional pursuits, Bauer is the mother of a 3-year-old son. She credits parenthood with helping her stay focused on her goals and reminding her of the values of contributing to society.

“Being a mother helps me because I have to keep myself to a schedule,” she said. “It requires you to work. It keeps me focused on the big picture and is a reminder not to give up, even when things get tough.”

Justice Randy Pierce, director of the Mississippi Judicial College, has served as a mentor during Bauer’s two years of law school. Pierce said he regularly reaches out to all incoming students during law school orientation to offer support and an open door, an opportunity Bauer accepted.

“Elena is a remarkable person and student,” Pierce said. “During her first semester, Elena asked to meet with me as she adjusted to the rigors of law school. She balanced being an amazing mother with the challenges of her first semester of law school. I told her then that she would succeed.

“She is bright, driven, caring and kind. I look forward to watching her as she becomes an attorney and begins her career. I’m proud of her, and I’m thrilled that she and Ole Miss found each other.”