Spring 2021 Commencement Ceremony Remarks for Doctoral, MFA and Professional Degree Candidates

Remarks as prepared for delivery: 4 p.m., Saturday, May 8, 2021

UW-Madison Spring Commencement Ceremony for Doctoral, MFA and Professional Degree Candidates
Camp Randall Stadium

Good afternoon. Welcome to Camp Randall Stadium and the 2021 graduate school commencement of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

After one of the strangest years any of us has ever experienced, many of you are here – together and in-person – to celebrate. And it feels great!

Thank you, DaSean Stokes and Sarah Brailey, for that beautiful performance.

Thank you, Provost Karl Scholz, for the kind introduction.

And thank you to John Gottman, who receives an honorary degree today. Dr. Gottman could not be here in person, but you will hear from him shortly and I think you will be inspired – as I have been – by his unique ability to see a problem in a way nobody’s ever considered before. He is world-renowned for his research on marriage. The mathematicians in the crowd will appreciate that he’s particularly well-known as one of the first people to utilize differential equations to model and describe interactions between couples.

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.

To the graduates here in person and members of this class joining us on the livestream:

Today we mark the years of sustained effort you have invested to work at the highest levels in your field … and the sacrifices you have made along the way.

Just months ago, few of us imagined that we would be able to be together today. You have made this moment possible with your careful attention to health protocols that keep yourself, and others, healthy.

I know it hasn’t been an easy year, but you’ve handled it with grace and even a sense of humor – one of our students recently observed that he can no longer walk past Union South – where he went twice a week to test – without drooling.

I want to say a special word to the estimated 40,000 parents, spouses, partners, children, siblings and friends who are with us today on the livestream:

This is your celebration too. I want to thank you for the years of support and sacrifice that have brought your graduate to this day.

To those graduates who have lost friends, colleagues, and family members – to the pandemic or for other causes – we remember all of them as well.

This has been an extraordinary year. We have seen 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 – but some of you have faced particular challenges. You deserve special recognition today. Please stand as you are able and remain standing:
• If you taught undergraduate classes in-person this year.
• If you had to figure out how to teach remotely this year.
• If you do clinical work, or research related to COVID-19, or have helped with testing and vaccination clinics.
• If you are a first-responder or a front-line worker.
• If you had a child learning at home rather than in school or preschool.

For all that you have accomplished under especially stressful circumstances, please give yourselves, and one another, a round of applause.

You can be seated.

I know that many of you also have faced financial hardship. And all of you have experienced the diminution of two things that are at the heart of who we are and what we do here at UW-Madison:

1. Interdisciplinary collaboration with partners across the campus and around the world, and

2. Public outreach to share knowledge beyond the borders of the campus (what we call the Wisconsin Idea).

These are things that depend on connections between people. And this university has always been a place that fosters those connections. They’re built on a thousand small moments – the conversation in the hallway that gives you a new way of thinking about something … Friday afternoons with your lab partners on the Terrace … or coffee with a friend.

COVID has taken so much from so many. But it has also taught us something really valuable, which it’s easy to lose sight of in graduate school:

How to think like a beginner.

The great cellist YoYo Ma credits his remarkable ability to connect with audiences to his beginner’s mind, which he describes as:

Being receptive to what’s around you and being present without judgment.

When we lost the ability to see one another face-to-face, to take note of all of those non-verbal cues that say: I understand you or I’m confused, we all had to start over learning how to communicate in different ways. To listen better, pace ourselves differently, and ask more questions.

Those of you who teach have experienced this daily … as have those of you whose research depends on building and maintaining relationships with communities across Wisconsin and around the world.

Sarah Alexander is a great example. Sarah graduates today with a Ph.D. in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Sarah worked with partners in Ethiopia to develop novel approaches for predicting seasonal rainfall and communicating with farmers and communities about uncertain climate conditions to help them build more resilient systems.

Her work is also going to be important right here in Wisconsin – but it will only be helpful if the information she has is communicated effectively to those who can use it.

Without the ability to travel to Ethiopia for in-person workshops, Sarah and her partners worked with people in the community who brought farmers together outdoors and held a megaphone up to a cellphone. It wasn’t ideal, but with this set-up, the research team was able to share critically important information.

No matter your field, COVID has forced you to do some things you probably haven’t done before, using new technologies and reaching out to people in different ways.

I suspect this has sharpened your communications skills. And you will need those skills as you go into a world that doesn’t always believe in science – but that urgently needs the solutions only science can provide.

COVID has taught us to view other facets of our lives through a beginner’s lens as well. And it turns out that examining everything you do, and figuring out a different way to do it, teaches you a few things that are really worth knowing, like:
• What is essential and what isn’t
• How to be flexible with yourself and others
• And what energizes you or makes you feel depleted.

So many of you have stories about the things you’ve decided to stop doing, or the things you’ve discovered, or re-discovered this past year:

• Some of you are playing more guitar or learning a new instrument.

• Some of you are learning to meditate or taking an online yoga class

• And some of you are just carving out time to take long walks.

These activities aren’t simply pleasant distractions – they are essential to your well-being and help re-energize you for your work.

When Albert Einstein came upon a problem that stumped him, he’d step away and play his violin. Isaac Newton and Carl Sagan would pick up their pens and write. Beatrix Potter created Peter Rabbit as an outlet for the frustrations she encountered as a woman in science.

I hope you will continue to try activities that give you a chance to be a beginner again.

And I hope you will stay connected to your fellow graduate students, your colleagues for life. They will always laugh and cry with you, and be there to celebrate victories large and small, no matter how many years go by.

After today, with your graduate degree, you will be part of the very powerful community of the most highly educated people in the world. That gives you the responsibility to use your education wisely – to make the world around you a better place.

And you are also part of the Badger family of alumni – more than 450,000 strong.

Thank you for being part of this community. Best wishes as you set off on the next stage of your journey. Wherever you go, be sure to come back and visit us every so often here in Madison and tell us how you’re doing.

Congratulations … and On Wisconsin!