Spring 2021 Bachelor’s Degree Commencement Remarks

Remarks as prepared for delivery: Noon, Saturday, May 8, 2021

UW-Madison Spring Bachelor’s Degree Commencement Ceremony
Camp Randall Stadium

Good afternoon. I am Chancellor Rebecca Blank. After one of the strangest years any of us has ever experienced, it feels great to be able to say:

Welcome to Camp Randall Stadium and the 168th spring commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison!

Today we confer degrees on nearly 5,500 undergraduates. Many of you are here in person, and many others are joining on the livestream. Today we celebrate all of you as you become alumni of one of the greatest universities in the world – but there is one group that I want to call out for special recognition:

If you are the first generation in your family to earn a college degree, please stand as you are able.

I know your families and friends are proud today. Congratulations on this tremendous accomplishment!

Please be seated.

I also want to take a moment to recognize the departure of Barry Alvarez, our Athletic Director, who is retiring after 31 years here at UW. Under his leadership, our Badger teams have won multiple national championships … our student athletes have been recognized for top academic achievement … and our football program has been singled out as the most admired in the country, not just because we win but because of our students’ academic success and community engagement!

Thank you, Barry, for giving us so many reasons to cheer over the last three decades.

Just a few months ago, we still weren’t sure whether we’d be jumping around in Camp Randall Stadium today.

Every graduate who has sat where you sit has faced many challenges to reach this moment – but few of them have faced the extraordinary challenges you have:

• The sudden switch to virtual learning last spring.

• The anxiety about your health and the health of your loved ones.

• The difficult choices about whether study in person or remotely this year … and whether to live in Madison or at home.

• And those twice-a-week tests I know you won’t miss.

o Believe me, I never thought I’d find myself sending out instructions on how to drool!

o But you’ve handled it with grace and even a sense of humor. One of our students said her new motto is “Always be pooling.”

But nobody got here alone.

There were days when things didn’t go quite the way you wanted:

• When that internship you’d hoped for fell through
• When that exam didn’t go so well
• When the relationship you thought was forever turned out … not to be.
• Some of you lost friends and family members over these years – to the pandemic or for other causes.

When you needed help and said I’m not sure I can do this, there were friends, family, professors, and advisors who told you, I believe in you, and I will help.
For all of the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and friends who are with us today on the livestream: This is your celebration too. Thank you for the support and sacrifices that you have made to help bring your graduate to this day.

Please join me in thanking all of them.

Your time here at UW has been capped by an extraordinary year, with a convergence of crises:
• The pandemic
• Economic uncertainty
• Political polarization
• And a new level of urgency to take meaningful action against racism and injustice, and to put an end to violence against Black and brown people, people of Asian descent, and all others who have been targets of hate crimes in this country.

These things have affected all of you – and you’ve responded in the proud tradition of this great university, by standing up … speaking out … and looking for ways to make things better.

Some of you answered the call to be on front lines of the pandemic – you deserve special recognition. Please stand as you are able and remain standing:

• If you helped with COVID testing or vaccination (where are the School of Nursing graduates?) or in other health care setting.

• If you worked as a Badger Wellness Ambassador.

• If you helped to raise awareness of mental health concerns and how to seek help.

• If you worked in Housing, Dining, in the Unions … or in any other campus job that helped us keep the campus safe and open.

• If you are a member of the Wisconsin National Guard or a branch of the armed services that was called to duty in the pandemic.

Thank you all!

You may be seated.

Many more of you have done a thousand small things to lift one another up:

• When classmates had no way to travel home for Thanksgiving, you were there with meal kits from the Open Seat Food Pantry.

• When student employees couldn’t gather for each other’s birthdays, you were there to deliver cupcakes and flowers to each person’s doorstep.

• And in those moments when a friend just needed to talk, you were there for them, too.

You’ve also done some pretty big things. When the pandemic threatened to put on hold the longtime dream of honoring UW’s historically Black fraternities and sororities with a special place on campus, members of this class said: We will make this happen.

• And two weeks ago, we dedicated the space for the new Divine Nine Garden Plaza.

Congratulations and thank you for seeing it through.

You are graduating into a world that looks very different than the one you planned for. Just as wars and terrorist attacks shaped your grandparents’ and parents’ generation, this pandemic will shape yours.

This year has helped to reveal qualities in each of you that are essential to building a happy and productive life in this new world. Reslience. Persistence. Flexibility. Awareness of your own needs, and the needs of others. And kindness.

Despite the challenges of this year, you’ve nurtured friendships, found ways to have fun, and are here in Camp Randall celebrating your graduation

My wish for you, in the words of the late, great author Maya Angelou, is that you will:

Continue to be who you are, and to astonish a mean world
with your acts of kindness.

Best wishes to all of you on wherever life takes you next. But be sure to come back and visit us – we want to know how you’re doing.

To all of you here in person and on the livestream – from Beijing, China … to San Francisco … to Wausau, Wisconsin, and every point in between – thank you for being part of our big Badger family and thanks for all you’ve given to the campus community during your time here.

Congratulations, Class of 2021 and On, Wisconsin!