***As prepared for delivery***
Remarks of Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin
UW-Madison Fall Convocation
Tue Sept 6, 2022
Thank you, Provost Scholz. Hello, new Badgers! Let’s also give our fabulous Provost a big round of applause.
On behalf of the faculty, staff and administration here at UW, I am thrilled to say welcome to the University of Wisconsin-Madison!
It’s wonderful to see all of you, and I know we have many members of the faculty and staff here as well who are eager to meet you and equally excited to welcome you.
You’ve already met the classmates you’re sitting with but let me tell you a little more about yourselves.
- There are about 8,600 of you, which makes this the largest freshman class in our history. Graduation Day is going to pack Camp Randall Stadium!
- We also have more than 1,000 transfer students joining this fall.
- The freshmen here were selected from a record-breaking pool of applicants … more than 60,000 students applied for those 8,600 spots, making this one of our most competitive years ever.
So give yourselves a round of applause – congratulations!
- Lots of you are from right here in WI.
- You also come from 45 other U.S. states along with Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico (missing Alaska, Idaho, Mississippi and Montana in this class – if you have friends there, let them know about us!)
- Let’s hear from you if you’re from one of our top 5 states outside of Wisconsin: Illinois? Minnesota? California? New York-New Jersey-Connecticut? Welcome!
- We also have international freshmen from more than 50 nations outside of the U.S.
- OK Wisconsin students: It’s your turn. Let’s hear from all of you!
- And roughly 20% of you are the first in your family to go to college. A special congratulations to all of you!
Until graduation day, we’re not all going to be together again in one place. So I want a photo!
Consider this your first official UW portrait … it’ll be on Instagram if you want to follow me @UWChancellor.
This class is particularly special to me because we’re starting here together. I’ve already gotten to meet some of you and looking forward to meeting many more of you and learning along with you about the many traditions that make this place so special. Like:
- Live music and popcorn on the Union Terrace
- Traying down Observatory Hill on snowy days (I’m not sure I’ll be trying that one)
- A race on Lake Mendota unlike anything you’ve ever seen (I won’t give it away, but it involves giant, hollowed out pumpkins)
- And of course game days at Camp Randall …
We really do want you to have a lot of fun, but I also want you to do so safely and responsibly. You have heard this before, but I going to repeat it:
High-risk drinkers jeopardize their own heath and well-being, and they make our campus a little less welcoming and less safe for everyone else. So take care of yourself and think about the kind of community you want to be part of, and make choices accordingly.
Sifting & Winnowing
Another tradition here – which is at the heart of what we do as a university – is sifting and winnowing, It’s our way here at UW to describe the scholarly inquiry that generates insights and discoveries and builds new knowledge.
You’re going to explore many different issues and ideas across lots of different academic fields. You’ll learn to think critically … argue persuasively … listen carefully … and every one of you is going to produce substantive work that goes beyond the level of excellence you’ve already achieved.
Here at UW-Madison, we discuss everything – the ideas we agree with and the ideas we strongly disagree with.
This will be exciting. It will stretch you. And there will be days when it might not feel altogether comfortable.
That’s part of what both academic freedom and freedom of speech are about. Freedom of speech is a lot easier to believe in when you agree with the speaker, but the truth is, it’s most important when you don’t.
And at the same time, we’ll work hard to make sure that you feel safe and supported and that every one of you knows that you belong here even when (and maybe even especially when) you’re in discussions with classmates or others who may have a very different world view from your own.
And inevitably –and wonderfully – you will leave here a very different person than you are today. These next four years – maybe more than any other time in your life – will be a time for growth and personal transformation. You’re going to figure out what you’re passionate about … what you’re really good at … and, equally importantly, what you don’t want to do.
You might not have a deep desire to chase Howler Monkeys around the rainforest like Marina did, but I hope you’ll follow her example – find a class or a student organization that sounds interesting but that might feel like a bit of a stretch.
Three People I Want You to Know
I am told that, at this point in the program, the Chancellor is supposed to offer a little bit more sage advice. Like, study hard, go to your professor’s office hours, and ask for help when you need it.
That’s good advice. But you’ve already heard that a few times, yes?
So instead of more advice, I want to share three quick stories about people you’ve never met, and probably never heard of.
They’re not especially famous.
But (just like you) they hiked up Bascom Hill (probably a little more often than they would have liked) … spent time on the lake … figured out how to live with roommates … and slogged through some late nights getting papers done.
And their lives say something about the qualities that we see in Badgers. The qualities we see in all of you.
The first is Mildred Fish-Harnack. She grew up in Milwaukee, came here, majored in English, and married a classmate from Germany named Arvid Harnack. After they graduated, they went to live in Germany. This was just before WWII. They had a front-row seat to the rise of Adolf Hitler. And they were deeply alarmed by what they saw. So they joined the resistance … infiltrated Nazi groups … smuggled secrets back to both the U.S and the Soviet Union. … and helped Jews escape Germany.
And then one day, they were caught.
Mildred was executed in 1943, making her the only American woman ever put to death on the direct order of Adolf Hitler. A tremendously sad end, obviously, but also a Wisconsin graduate who spent her life in pursuit of her deepest beliefs.
She’s still not well-known in Wisconsin, but there is a special Wisconsin holiday on her birthday – Sept. 16, which is coming up soon, is, in fact, Mildred Fish-Harnack Day.
The second person I want you to know is a Roman Catholic nun named Sister Mary Kenneth Keller. In 1965 (around the time many of your parents were born) Sister Mary Kenneth became the first person in the U.S. to earn a PhD in Computer Sciences.
Not the first woman, but the first person (though there were a couple of men elsewhere in the country who came in a very close second).
And she did it right here at UW.
Where are the computer science majors here? That’s now our #1 major!
Sister Mary Kenneth brought a lot more women into computer science, and she made history by helping develop the computer language called BASIC, which – for the first time – made it possible for anyone to learn to write software.
The third and final Badger I want to tell you about is a 2020 UW grad – Kevin Crosby. Kevin is now a medical student at one of the top medical schools in the country.
He came to UW-Madison from Washington DC as part of the Posse Program (any Posse students here?). He was excited to be here, but he also had moments when he doubted that this was the right place for him.
But he branched out – made new friends, got to know his professors – and ended up doing biomedical research in one of our labs… becoming a peer tutor at the Physics Learning Center … and even joining the Badger Crew Team.
And in his senior year, Kevin was one of three students from our campus to be selected as finalists for the Rhodes Scholarship, the most prestigious fellowship in the country.
For nearly 175 years, UW-Madison has been a magnet for smart, strong, capable students like Mildred Fish-Harnack, Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, Kevin Crosby, and now – all of you!
There are two things I want you to take from these stories:
The first is, if you work hard, you can make astonishing things happen. These three were like you. They had great days and tough ones. Moments of exhilaration and moments of doubt.
The second is, however you define the Wisconsin Idea, it’s about making a difference in the world. And every one of you can make a difference.
You will have days when you love every minute of your Wisconsin experience. And you will have days when you’re thinking, “What was I thinking??” We all have both kinds of days. That’s normal. And when you have one of those hard days, I have one important suggestion: reach out and try to connect with others. It so often really helps.
I remember my first days as an undergraduate – I initially gravitated toward people who were from similar backgrounds and saw the world in the same way. And we all need friends like that! But after a while I got to know other people – people who were nothing like me. And some of them became some of my very best friends.
It is likely that you never have been – and may never again be – living and working alongside people from so many different countries, and many different races, ethnicities, genders, religions, and points of view.
That’s one of the most exciting parts of being at a big, public university and I hope you’ll take advantage of it.
Each of you comes to us with your own set of experiences, but today – and from now on – you share an identity as Badgers. And one day you will be alumni of one of the greatest universities in the world.
So it’s time to celebrate! We want to celebrate all of you 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 at Alumni Park, next to Memorial Union, courtesy of the Wisconsin Alumni Association.
Now please join me in welcoming one very special Badger… we can’t do this without Bucky! (Bucky enters)
After we sing, please remain standing for the faculty recession.
Now rise as you are able and the UW Marching Band will lead us in Varsity.