Fall 2019 Convocation Speech

As prepared for delivery, 1:30 pm., Sept. 3, Kohl Center:

Good afternoon, new Badgers! Welcome to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. You are now students at one of the top public universities in the world. Congratulations!

It’s wonderful to see you all here, and I know we have more than 70 members of the faculty and staff here as well – they’re eager to meet you.

This is a pretty special class – the largest freshmen class in UW-Madison history – which means Graduation Day 2023 is going to pack Camp Randall Stadium!

And I know that some of you are transfer students – we have more than 1,000 transfer students joining us this fall, and you’ll be graduating even sooner.

The freshmen here were selected from a record-breaking pool of applicants … more than 44,000 students applied for about 7,500 spots.

We picked you because you are highly qualified academically, but also because we believe that your talents and interests make you an excellent fit for this great university.

I’ve seen you all taking lots of photos – now it’s my turn. Your first official UW portrait … I’ll Tweet it from my account – if you want to see it, follow me @BeckyBlank. I know many of you are already on Instagram and Twitter with us. Let us see what you’re up to.

I want to tell you a bit about the people sitting around you:

• The majority of you are from the great state of Wisconsin.

• You also come from 46 other U.S. states. (Let’s hear from you if you’re from one of the top 5 – Illinois? Minnesota? California? New York? New Jersey?) Welcome to you and your classmates from across the country and around the world.

• Our international freshmen are from 45 nations outside of the U.S.

• And I am very proud to say that nearly two out of every 10 new freshmen, and nearly three out of every 10 new transfer students are the first generation in their family to go to college. Special congratulations and welcome.

I told you this class is pretty special. You’re also beginning your studies here in a year when we’re celebrating the 150th anniversary of the first women to earn bachelor’s degrees from this university.

We’ve created a short video celebrating UW women to honor this milestone. Let’s watch.

[5:00 video plays]

As we honor our accomplished women, we also celebrate the extraordinary experience of studying at a major research institution. In the next four years, you will get to learn from world-renowned scholars … choose from among 124 majors … participate in groundbreaking research … and study abroad in almost any country in the world.

This is an exciting place. But it can also feel a little overwhelming, particularly when you’re new. You just heard Izzy talk about the importance of getting involved in activities outside of the classroom, to get to know other students.

Getting involved is not only good for your social life … it’s an important part of your education here. If you leave UW with only classroom learning, we haven’t done our job. You are here for a residential learning experience – what we call the Wisconsin Experience – and that stretches far beyond your classes.

We have about 1,000 student organizations on this campus (though I admit I’d never heard of the Meme Analysis Club…) – so pick one and try it – if you don’t like it, you have 999 other choices. Or get involved with the Badger Volunteers – we have thousands of students working together on projects in the community.

Let me exercise my privilege as chancellor to give you three pieces of advice.

First, your primary reason to be at UW is to learn…to be a student. So take your academic work seriously.

This is a challenging place. The classes are rigorous, and you will need to keep up with the readings and do the homework. Your parents may still try to nag you, but it’s just not the same when they’re not here in person. So it’s up to you to get the work done.

A special warning: High-risk drinkers jeopardize their own heath and well-being and make our campus less welcoming and less safe for everyone. So please, take care of yourself, be smart about the choices you make, and think about the kind of community you want to create.

My second piece of advice is to ask for help when you need it.

Like many of you, I am from right here in the upper Midwest – I grew up in Minnesota. I learned from my family that I should take care of my own problems and not bother other people with them. Does that sound familiar? That really wasn’t the best thing to learn. Just because you can do things on your own doesn’t mean you should.

The faculty, staff, and advisers are here to work with you and to help you. So if things aren’t going quite the way you want them to … don’t hesitate to reach out.

We selected you because we know you can be successful here. So when you hit snags, let us help.

My third and final piece of advice is – take advantage of being a student at a university with the scope and breadth of this one. Try a class in something you know nothing about. Get to know students who grew up in a place far away from where you’ve lived. Visit the Chazen Art Museum, one of the best campus museums in the country. Learn to sail on Lake Mendota.

In short, do things that push you to learn in new ways.

Let me tell you a quick story about one of our recent graduates. His name is Colin Higgins. Colin is UW’s most recent winner of the Rhodes Scholarship – the most competitive and prestigious award for students in the U.S.

When Colin sat where you are sitting today, he was mostly feeling relieved … he’d just gotten off the waitlist. Some of you can probably relate.

But he was also feeling like he needed to demonstrate that he had a solid plan to do well at UW – which to him meant picking a major right away, and sticking to it.

He decided he was going to be an art major. This decision was based on two things. First, he liked art in high school. Second, the girl he had a crush on was studying art.

But then he took a history class, and really liked it. And he took an environmental studies class and really liked it. And he took a geography class, and really liked it.

He started to worry about what was going to happen to that art major. But then he remembered something he’d heard Professor Howard Schweber say at SOAR. He said: “The students I worry about most are not the ones who come to UW without a plan … they’re the ones who come to UW with very detailed plans that don’t allow for flexibility and growth.”

Colin abandoned the art major, and ended up triple-majoring in history, geography, and environmental studies … working on some important research projects with his professors … and founding a new student group to work on making this campus a more sustainable place. And he went on to be selected as a Rhodes Scholar.

We talked to Colin this summer, and he told us that the one decision he made on this campus, that opened the doors to all of the opportunities he found here, was to step out of his comfort zone.

If you’re like the rest of us, you’re probably a little bit more comfortable with people whose names and faces and language are like your own. And it’s a little too easy to hang out just with that group. But in 2019, one of the most important skills to learn for your future career is how to live and work effectively in a diverse and global community.

So it’s our job to help you mix it up. You’ll take part in the ‘Our Wisconsin’ program to help you recognize and challenge the assumptions you probably don’t even realize you make about other people. And we’ll do our best to get you out and involved in lots of other activities and events.

And I think you will find, just like Colin Higgins did, that some amazing opportunities open up for you.

One thing that will bring all of us together is reading and talking about this fall’s Go Big Read book. It’s called The Poison Squad and you’ll receive a copy on your way out.

Go Big Read is basically the biggest book club you’ve ever seen. Thousands of people – on campus and around the community – will be reading this book. Your professors might incorporate it into discussions, and we’ll have a big campus conversation about it in October, when the author comes here to speak.

The Poison Squad was written by Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum, who also happens to be a UW graduate. She taught science writing here for many years.

The title refers to a group of young men who volunteered to be test subjects in a long-term research project to figure out what different food additives would do to the human body.

There was a time in this country when manufacturers could put anything they wanted into food. They added lead to candy to make it bright yellow. Put chalk dust in milk to make it look whiter after they’d watered it down … and mixed tar into ketchup to make it thicker.

The Poison Squad shows how science can influence policy.

It shows how one person with passion can change the world.

And it shows how government regulation can sometimes be a good thing.

A few of the stories may shock you, but I hope they also make you think about the scientists and policymakers and ordinary citizens who have worked together to build a system that makes sure the SpaghettiOs and Ramen noodles you love to eat aren’t going to poison you.

In conclusion, you have come to a university with a long and proud commitment to changing the world by actively engaging on issues that affect people’s lives. We are not afraid of robust debate that allows for many points of view – even those contrary to our values. That’s what free expression is all about.

We value diversity and welcome everyone who wants to learn, to work hard, and to be part of this wonderful community.

Each of you has a different background, but you now share a common identity as Badgers. An identity that I hope you will claim for the rest of your lives: you are students – and one day will be alumni – of one of the greatest universities in the world.

We want to celebrate our new Badgers with two time-honored UW traditions – singing Varsity and eating Babcock Ice Cream.

Of course, we can’t do both at once.

We’ll sing here, and eat ice cream down by the Memorial Union, courtesy of the Union and the Alumni Association.

Congratulations on being here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and my very best wishes for your time here as a student.

Now, please join me in welcoming a special guest to help lead Varsity. (Bucky appears from behind the curtain on stage and joins the Chancellor on stage) (video with Varsity music and imagery)

On, Wisconsin!