End of Semester Notes

As we reach the end of another semester, I want to look back for a moment and acknowledge a few of the many great individual and collective student achievements over the past academic year.

At UW-Madison, we have 43,000 students from across Wisconsin and around the world, pursuing degrees in more than 200 fields. In this academic year, we have conferred more than 10,500 degrees, both undergraduate and graduate. (By the way, we are among the top five schools in the nation for the number of Ph.D.s we graduate — among the most sought-after workers in our economy.)

And we’ve had an outstanding year in education. The 2016-17 freshman class was our largest and most diverse ever, and we’ve just had a record-breaking number of applications for next fall’s class, with more than 35,000 students applying for about 6,400 slots.

Our retention rate is excellent: 95.4 percent of freshmen return for sophomore year, which means they have a good experience on campus and get the support they need to succeed here.

Graduation rates are also at an all-time high. Our average time-to-degree has now fallen to just over four years, which means students leave school with less debt. In fact, more than half our students graduate without any student loan debt.

Among our student-athletes, our football, men’s soccer, men’s tennis, women’s golf and women’s hockey teams all earned NCAA awards for posting Academic Progress Report scores in the top 10 percent of all Division I teams in their sports. That’s remarkable.

But the statistics aren’t as impressive as the personal stories I experienced at commencement celebrations this past weekend.

I encountered student after student who had wonderful stories to share about their time at UW-Madison and what they hope to achieve in the future. I want to share two that I found especially meaningful.

Deshawn McKinney of Milwaukee came to UW-Madison with support from our PEOPLE program, a pre-college pipeline program that identifies talented young people from communities that have historically been underrepresented on this campus. He not only excelled academically, he seized many opportunities to get involved in campus life. He joined the First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community; he worked to promote equity and diversity on campus; and this year he served as president of the Wisconsin Union Directorate. He received two prestigious national awards ­— the Truman and Marshall scholarships ­— and was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship. Now he’s headed to Britain, where he’ll pursue a master’s degree in social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

James McGowan made it to UW-Madison despite thinking as a young man that he’d never be able to get here. He’s from Portage and spent about 20 years as a blue-collar worker in manufacturing and construction before deciding at age 42 to go to college. Through persistence and hard work, he achieved his dream and received a bachelor’s degree with a major in personal finance. Now he hopes to launch a career helping other students finance their education.

Not only have James and Deshawn achieved some meaningful personal accomplishments, it’s also clear that they are dedicated to the Wisconsin Idea. Reaching out to serve others is a proud tradition at UW-Madison. This past year, more than 5,600 students volunteered in our community through programs supported by the Morgridge Center for Public Service. Our fraternity and sorority members raised money for cancer charities and also worked on programs aimed at preventing sexual assault in the community, and our student-athletes frequently participate in the “Badgers Give Back” program. While at UW, our students gain valuable knowledge and leadership skills that will remain with them for a lifetime. After graduation, they make meaningful contributions to their communities around the state and around the world.

Our commencement speaker, Steven Levitan, gave a great address — both funny and smart. (View it here.) But I really appreciated the student speech, given by Senior Class Vice President Martin Barron Weiss. Martin talked about the real difficulties he faced when his dad became unexpectedly ill and died during Martin’s time at UW. At first he thought he had to deal with this alone, but when his friends learned what was happening he realized how much support this community could provide to him. Martin learned that we can always deal better with challenges as well as opportunities when among a community with friends.

Congratulations to all of this year’s graduates — and to all on campus who have taught or supported them.

As our graduates enter the next stages of their lives, whether that’s pursuing an advanced degree or beginning a new career, I hope they will find that their time at UW was well spent, even when it brought challenges. As I said to them at commencement, they have been part of UW during their time here and I hope that UW is a part of them after they leave.