Spring 2019 Commencement Speech: “Opportunity”

As prepared for delivery, 12 p.m., May 11, Camp Randall Stadium:

Good afternoon.  Welcome to Camp Randall Stadium and the 166th spring commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Today, 7,881 bachelor’s, master’s, and law degree candidates will become alumni of one of the world’s greatest universities – making the Class of 2019 quite possibly the largest in our history!

Friends and family – you have the best seats in the house – where fans have been cheering on the Badgers for 102 years (just for the record, that first game in Camp Randall was a shutout: we trounced Minnesota).

Today these seats are filled with loyal supporters who have helped today’s students arrive at graduation. Students: Let’s give your friends and families a round of applause.

Class Highlights

The Class of 2019 has left its mark at UW.

This class has set new records for community service … and helped make UW-Madison the #1 public university in the nation for students studying abroad.

We’ve eaten 400,000 gallons of Babcock ice cream in your time here … you’ve battled for Bascom in epic snowball fights … and when Madison got colder than Antarctica for a few days last winter, you built igloos …  learned the term ‘frost quake’ … and a few of you even figured out that tossing boiling water into very cold air creates snow.

And just this spring, you watched the Badger Women’s Hockey team win the national championship! The co-captains and assistant captains of that team are graduating today … they’re great athletes and great students.

Annie Pankowski and Sophia Shaver … along with Emily Clark and Maddie Rolfes.

Congratulations on all of your achievements.

But for some today’s commencement is bittersweet. There are members of this class who passed away before graduation. They were friends and colleagues and we pay tribute to their memory.

Celebrating 150 years of UW women

2019 marks a historic anniversary at UW. 150 years ago, in 1869, the first women earned bachelor’s degrees from UW-Madison.

There were six of them:

  • Clara Bewick
  • Anna Headen
  • Jane Nagle
  • Helen Noble
  • Elizabeth Spencer
  • And Ella Ursula Turner

We honor them for their individual achievements but also as trailblazers for generations of extraordinary UW women. Some of whom you’ll meet in just a few minutes in our video. Women like:

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Roman Catholic nun who in 1965 became the first person in the U.S. to earn a PhD in Computer Sciences. And she did it right here at UW. Sister Mary Kenneth was a fierce advocate for bringing more women into computer science.

Mabel Watson Raimey, the first African-American woman to graduate from UW. She earned her degree 101 years ago and went on to become the first black woman lawyer in Wisconsin. She was a role model for  hundreds of others who followed her.

And Ethel Kullman Allen, a three-time UW alumna who did groundbreaking botany research here in the 1930s and helped to create one of the most beautiful spots on this campus – the Allen Centennial Gardens.

These remarkable women and so many more – including the multi-talented Cora Marrett, who will share her story later in this program – are an important part of our history. Their work has shaped this university, this state, and our nation.

But our celebration is about more than any single anniversary event or individual accomplishment. In recognizing our women alums at UW, we are celebrating opportunity – an opening up of possibilities that these first six women experienced and that many of our graduates, regardless of their gender, experience in their time here.


 Every one of you came to UW with your own dreams, and your own unique story. You brought your own skills and talents and interests. And each of you has had different experiences here.

But there is one thing I hope every one of you discovered on this campus. It’s the same thing the first six women found here 150 years ago.

By identifying skills, passions and abilities you may not have known you possessed, you discovered opportunity.

And today, we celebrate some of the extraordinary things you’ve done with that opportunity.

When Leah Johnson saw ways to make our campus more sustainable, she co-founded CLEAN – Campus Leaders for Energy Action Now. Leah and CLEAN have played a role in a number of changes, from installing bottle fillers on water fountains to hiring our first-ever Director of Sustainability.

Leah also spearheaded a clothing swap that is now on its third year bringing in thousands of items for students to exchange.

She has just accepted a position at an international environmental consulting firm in Chicago.

Kent Mok came to this country from the Philippines when he was 13. He dreamed of becoming a doctor, but after his father passed away, Kent wasn’t sure he would get to college at all.

He found a way – thanks to a Posse scholarship – and he made a decision to dedicate himself to helping others succeed. He’s been a community volunteer, a mentor, and an undergraduate teaching assistant.

Today, Kent graduates with honors and is applying to medical school.

Abby Catania came to UW to study agricultural and applied economics – but she noticed that there were few students of color in most of her classes, so she did something about it.

First, she organized a program to bring students from one of Milwaukee’s highest-poverty high schools for a three-day overnight on campus to learn about some of the things we have to offer.

And second, she took $500 out of her own savings to start a scholarship fund to encourage more students like her to pursue majors in agriculture.

She then brought in other donors, and the first Abagail Catania Diversity Scholarship was given last summer.

We often say that UW is a place that changes lives. But the university is just a collection of buildings on a beautiful lake.

It’s the people at the university who change lives.

People like Leah, Kent, and Abby, and every one of you who embraced the opportunity you were given to learn from world-renowned faculty … and then shared that knowledge to help others succeed.

That’s the proud UW mission of outreach and public service – what we call the Wisconsin Idea.

And it’s given you opportunities to learn things we can’t simply teach in a classroom. Things like how to be resilient when things don’t go well … how to ask for help when you need it … and how to work effectively with people who come from different backgrounds…and how to be a leader.

These are skills every one of you will need to be successful in work and in life.

Which leads me to offer you two pieces of advice.

First, learn to be comfortably uncomfortable 

Remember when Bryan Stevenson came to campus? Most of you were in your first year here when we read Just Mercy as our Go Big Read book.

Bryan talked about what he’s learned from his work at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

One of the most important lessons is that the people who accomplish really important things are the ones who can tolerate discomfort.

He said:

We all like to seek the things that are comfortable rather than uncomfortable. But … if I want to create justice, then I have to get comfortable with struggle.

Those first six UW women knew something about getting comfortable with struggle.

They had a hard time here at UW.

They were frustrated that they couldn’t take classes first thing in the morning – they had to wait until after the men’s classes were done. They had to deal with some of the male students treating them like they didn’t belong here … and some of the faculty openly questioning whether admitting women would dilute the value of a UW degree.

It would have been easier to leave. Maybe some of you have had that same feeling.

But they didn’t run away – and neither did you.

You learned to have difficult conversations. You learned to advocate for yourself. And you learned to be comfortably uncomfortable.

In those moments when you stretch beyond your comfort zone – that’s when you are most likely to learn and grow.

Second, don’t try to be someone you’re not

One of our students tells the story of coming here as an engineering major and struggling during his first year to admit to himself that he didn’t really like engineering, and wasn’t very good at it. With a lot of introspection and help from his advisor, he’s now a very happy speech pathology major.

I know that many of you have had similar experiences.

College isn’t just learning about an academic subject – it’s learning about yourself. And learning to accept who you are rather than trying to be someone else.

Your student speaker today will share his story about trying to become – as he puts it – a real person, rather than just a happy image on Instagram.

Becoming yourself can take a lifetime. There’s a story about an orthodox Rabbi named Zusya who, as an old man, said:

In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’

They will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’

When you’re honest with yourself about who you are, what you love to do, and what you’re good at – that’s when you’ll be truly prepared to make the best choices for your career and your life.


I want to close where I began – with our first six women graduates. In many ways, they were no different than all of you … they came here for the opportunity to be educated at a great university.

They were shaped by the same enduring values that have guided your Wisconsin Experience.

And the letters they wrote home weren’t so different from the text messages you send to your families (although I’m told they were asking their parents for things like a fresh batch of pickles and a new slop bucket).

Clara Bewick was the valedictorian of that group of six – you can read about her in your program. She became a journalist and a renowned advocate for women’s rights.

As her graduation approached, she wrote a letter to her grandparents. I want to end with a passage from that letter. She wrote:

How strange it is that the years fly so quickly by. The close of each year brings us to a stopping place, where just for a moment we may tarry and glance back over the road we have passed; a milestone measuring off the past from the future, the actual from the ideal. … It is very pleasant to turn to a new leaf, as yet clean and bright. So “forgetting the things which are behind,” we will “run with patience the race set before us.”

I wish you all the best as you turn over the next new leaf in your life.

Keep in touch. Let us know what you’re doing and how you’re doing.

And remember to come back and visit. You will always be part of UW and I hope that UW will always be part of you. I can’t wait to hear what you accomplish in the years ahead.

Congratulations to the Class of 2019!