“What It Means To Be a Badger”


Chancellor Mnookin's remarks to graduates at Spring Commencement 2023.

University of Wisconsin–Madison

May 13, 2023

Good afternoon everyone!  It is my great honor to welcome you to Camp Randall Stadium and the 170th commencement of the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

It’s not a beautiful and sunny day, but we’ve kept the rain and the lightning at bay, and, you know, if you don’t like the Wisconsin weather — say it with me — just wait a day, and it’ll change!  And so I expect tomorrow it will be absolutely beautiful.  And in the meantime, this is a beautiful day to celebrate the extraordinary Class of 2023!

Today, we confer 7,826 degrees, making this the largest commencement ceremony in the history of this great university!

224 of you have earned law degrees — where are our Law School graduates?  Congratulations!

More than 1,300 of you have earned master’s degrees — where are the master’s graduates?  Congratulations!

And 6,225 of you have earned bachelor’s degrees — let’s hear from you!

Congratulations, graduates!

You have so much to be proud of, but you didn’t get to this day by yourself.  How about another round of applause for the 40,000 very proud family members and friends up in the stands — this is your day, too!  Congratulations!

We have an excellent keynote speaker for you today — former United States Attorney General Eric Holder is here!

His daughter, Brooke, is a Badger.  She introduced her dad to all things UW–Madison … Mr. Attorney General, I understand you’re especially fond of our Starship robots and I’m looking forward to hearing you speak in just a few minutes.  Thank you and welcome!

Every one of you has worked hard to reach this day, but there is one group for whom today has an even more special meaning — if you are part of the first generation in your family to earn a college degree, please stand as you’re able and make some noise!

If you are a veteran or serving on active duty or in the Reserves — whether you’re graduating or celebrating our graduates, please stand as you’re able.  Thank you for your service to our nation!

Today’s commencement is bittersweet.  There are members of this class who passed away before graduation.  We hold them in our hearts on this day.

We also lost a beloved chancellor.  The person who brought commencement back to Camp Randall Stadium!  Chancellor Blank often said this was her favorite day of the year.  I know she too would be very proud of every one of you.

* * * *

As we mark this day, I also want to acknowledge that it’s been a tough few weeks for our campus community.

A racist video posted online caused pain and anger and frustration.

I know — and I hope you know — that the hateful and harmful words expressed in that video do not represent our campus community.  No matter how loud such voices may seem at times, they are not who we want to be, and we can and must resolve not to let such voices define us.

At the same time, events like this illustrate resoundingly that we still have work to do.  To be all that we aspire to be as a world-class university, UW–Madison must be a place where every person feels they belong and can flourish!


What it means to be a Badger

Now I have to say, this class, the Class of 2023, is particularly special for me because I, too, am graduating (in a manner of speaking) from my first academic year here at UW–Madison.  And you’ve given me lots of good advice about how to be a Badger.

You told me where to look for turtles in the Arboretum … warned me that spring would come in sometimes painful fits and starts (and that it might well snow in April) … showed me how to walk out on the ice to Lady Liberty …  and taught me how to Jump Around!

Now you don’t have to be a Badger fan to be a Badger … but I have to say, I have loved cheering for the Badgers with so many of you!

What’s NOT to love about watching Devyn Robinson spike a volleyball??

Class of 2023, you helped us break every national record for crowd size at women’s sporting events this year!

Members of our seven-time national championship women’s hockey team are well-represented in this class — hockey Badgers, where are you?

Congratulations and thank you for an incredible year!

For many of you, this may your very last week of school EVER.  Others of you will decide to pursue further graduate education, whether immediately or down the road.

Whatever comes next, I know that you have developed the skills, experiences, and connections with others that can guide you and help you on your way.

My hope for you is that your time here at UW–Madison has helped you to find, and stay true to, your own personal GPS.

The Global Positioning System that gives you a values-driven map to direct you.  The GPS that lives within you, but also outside of you, in your family, friends, and throughout your professional life.

Remember not to lose sight of that GPS as you navigate your many choices and opportunities.

I also am using GPS as a shorthand for three qualities that I hope you have meaningfully developed here, and that, on top of all of your academic learning and knowledge, will, I believe, serve you well in the future:  Gratitude, Purpose, and Service to others.

First, Gratitude.  Nothing worthwhile happens alone.  You are here today through your own work and drive, certainly, but every one of you also has been the recipient of the generosity of others — family, friends, professors, mentors, and so many others who have supported and believed in you, sometimes when you didn’t entirely believe in yourself.

So say thank you, often — authentically, and warm-heartedly.  Remember and appreciate the support that helped you along the way — and remember that sometimes, you may even have received a helping hand in ways you are not even aware of.

Second, Purpose.  I wish for each of you a life of purpose that gives you the chance to spend time pursuing things you care about. I’m not saying you need to live with purpose every single minute.  Carve out time for fun and for serendipity.  But do ask yourself, in the words of the poet Mary Oliver:  What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

And finally, Service.  I hope that you will be part of something bigger than yourself.  That’s also what it means to be a Badger!

Every one of you has a story about making a difference.  I’ll tell you just a couple.

Samantha Angelina and Akshay Kalra — where are you?

When Sammy and Akshay learned that people in our community were going hungry because they couldn’t get to the River Food Pantry during regular business hours, they worked with the Pantry to design food lockers that allow the user to pick up food with a limited-time code, reducing food insecurity and giving families a measure of dignity.

Today, they receive bachelor’s degrees from our School of Human Ecology.  Congratulations!

And Maren Seefluth — where are you?

Maren wanted to find a way to help preserve the way of life in the Wisconsin farming community where she grew up, so she developed a research project looking at how we can uplift small Wisconsin dairy farmers while also helping to reduce emissions from the big refrigeration trucks that are so important to the industry.

And then she interned with leaders in the state Assembly who are working on these issues to help create better policy.

Today Maren receives a bachelor’s degree from the Wisconsin School of Business.  Congratulations!

There are also 149 members of this class who have taken the Teacher Pledge and will soon be working in schools all over Wisconsin, helping to address the critical teacher shortage.

To all of you — and to our generous alumni whose support makes this program possible — thank you!


Pandemic impact

Class of ’23, your accomplishments are extra impressive given that most of you were just freshmen when the pandemic hit.

You left on your first spring break and suddenly everything changed.  You had to learn to learn virtually.

You came back to quarantines and face coverings and the Badger Badge and making reservations to go to your favorite State Street hangouts.

The pandemic changed so much, but it couldn’t take away your exceptional accomplishments.

  • You won national awards for academic excellence.
  • You started businesses.
  • You made beautiful music together both literally and figuratively, live and on Zoom.
  • You learned how to ask for help when you needed it.
  • And when the pandemic ended, you helped us set a new record for numbers of students studying abroad!

You also showed up for each other.  Because that, too, is what it means to be a Badger!



Class of 2023, you walked into Camp Randall today for the last time as students, and you will walk out as alumni of one of the greatest universities in the world.

You are graduating into a world that looks pretty different than the one you might have planned for when you arrived here.

You’ve learned to adapt to monumental change — the one and only thing we know for sure the future will bring.

And you’ve learned what it means to be a Badger.

I hope you’ll continue to find gratitude, live with purpose, and be in service to something bigger than yourself.

And I hope that you will continue to be there for each other.

You share a deep bond that will last a lifetime.

And I certainly hope you’ll come back and visit us.  You will always find a warm welcome here!

Congratulations, Class of 2023, and On, Wisconsin!