2015 Winter Commencement remarks

Chancellor Rebecca Blank’s Winter Commencement remarks, delivered 10 a.m. on December 20, 2015 at the Kohl Center. 

Good morning, everyone. I want to hear that you’re awake! Good morning!

Excellent. It’s always fun in the Kohl Center to have this whole crowd of people.

Welcome to the winter 2015 commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Let’s start with a round of applause for all of our graduates. Congratulations!

I also want to extend a very warm welcome to family and friends. They are one of the reasons why all of our graduates got here today, and in appreciation for everything they have done, let’s give them a round of applause as well.

Today we are going to confer more than 2,000 undergraduate degrees and nearly 1,200 graduate and professional degrees. For each of today’s graduates, we celebrate the end of your life as a student at the University of Wisconsin and the beginning of your next adventure.

For the undergraduates here today, that adventure might be very different from the one you imagined for yourself when you arrived here just a few short years ago. As you’ve embraced everything this campus has to offer, you’ve probably been aware of how much you’ve been learning about different topics … but you might not have realized how much you’ve been learning about yourselves.

I hope that your time here has helped you to discover that place where what you’re good at and what you’re passionate about comes together. Because that’s the place where your life’s work awaits you.

Those of you earning graduate degrees today already have found that special place. You have used your time here to delve deeply … to understand and master your area of study.

For each of you, this is an important day!

But it’s also an historic moment for the University of Wisconsin here in Madison.

Fifty years ago, in 1965, we held our very first winter commencement. Up until then, students who earned their degrees mid-year had no ceremony, no “Pomp and Circumstance,” no cap and gown … just a diploma that came in the mail.

Now I think I saw a few of you perk up at that. It might have been a little easier and a lot less trouble. But I hope that you value the memories from today as you celebrate all that you have accomplished with friends and with family.

And this year, we have even more to celebrate: 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the graduation of the very first women from this university.

There were six women in the Class of 1865. They earned degrees from the two-year teacher-training program that was then called the “Normal Department.” And they paved the way for the first women bachelor’s degree candidates four years later.

The presence of women on this campus was initially controversial. A faculty member named Paul Chadbourne was behind an effort to shut down the Normal Department … and he succeeded, briefly. But years later, the Board of Regents had a bit of fun naming what was then the campus’ all-female dormitory “Chadbourne Hall.”

Today we understand that our strength lies in our diversity. We are proud to be a place where every qualified student has an opportunity to go to college, whatever their family income, their home community, their gender identity, their ethnic or their racial background.

We are especially proud to welcome so many first-generation students …  students like Ana Lara Santiago, who is receiving a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering today. Ana and her family came here from Mexico when she was 14. As an engineering student, she has been a leader, a role model and a stand-out student. She helped to design a prototypical medical device that won the coveted Tong Award earlier this year.

Ana will go on to graduate school, and hopes to dedicate her career to improving the lives of people with orthopedic injuries.

The new year is a special one for Ana; she hopes to apply for U.S. citizenship next summer.

One of the things that’s wonderful about UW is the deep commitment of our students toward mentoring others. That’s an important facet of a successful Wisconsin Experience.

McKaylee Duquain felt that support when she arrived here from the Menominee Reservation and experienced a bit of culture shock; I suspect others of you shared that experience. With the help of the PEOPLE Program, Alpha Pi Omega, the Native American sorority, and Wunk Sheek, a student organization that focuses on issues related to indigenous peoples, McKaylee found a community of friends … and has become an important source of support for others.

Today, McKaylee graduates with a bachelor’s degree in forest sciences. She hopes to join the Peace Corps, and ultimately plans to return home to help manage the natural resources that her people have protected for centuries. And I know that her family is here to celebrate with her.

All of you who’ve been on campus for the last four years have had a particularly rich experience:

Back-to-back trips to the Final Four, not to mention the Rose Bowl, the Women’s Frozen Four and other national sports tournaments.

You helped us consume 400,000 gallons of Babcock ice cream … you were among the first students to enjoy the new Union South … you found your way through an ever-shifting maze of restoration projects at Memorial Union … and you competed for the best Instagram of sunset on the Terrace.

You spotted foxes on campus, battled for Bascom in an epic snowball fight and welcomed the President of the United States to campus.

And you carried forward UW-Madison’s proud tradition of activism and engagement when you joined together not once, but over and over again, to speak out for the things that you most care about – most recently at the Black Out March. You have helped to ensure that we continue to engage in the difficult and necessary work of improving the campus climate for all members of our community.

In your time here, the nation couldn’t get enough of Madison, Wisconsin.

We’ve been named “Best College Town in the Big Ten,” one of the nation’s “Happiest Cities,” one of the “Best Cities for Young Professionals,” the “Most Livable City in America” and the award that I think drives all others: “Best Food Carts in the Nation.”

You have also worked hard here, perhaps harder than you knew you could. And you have seized the opportunities that come along with an education at a big, public research institution – opportunities to expand your understanding of the world, and your place in it.

For Elana Rabishaw, that means working with the School of Human Ecology to structure an independent study that allowed her to spend a semester in San Francisco, at one of our nation’s oldest synagogues. Today, Elana graduates in community and non-profit leadership and modern Hebrew, and she has just been accepted to a highly competitive six-year graduate program to become a rabbi.

James Downey dedicated himself to pursuing opportunities to work alongside some of our world-class researchers in animal sciences, and to developing and operating his own crop business. He now manages 230 acres of land. With a bachelor’s degree in dairy science, he will grow this enterprise and plans a future in dairy farming here in Wisconsin.

Jake Walsh earns a PhD in Zoology today, and has mentored dozens of undergraduate students, led outreach efforts, and produced an impressive body of scholarly research that’s deepened our understanding of how invasive species are changing the lakes. As a teacher, a mentor, and a person of Native American descent, Jake is committed to building a career around teaching and research to engage a diverse array of students in the study of limnology.

Like Elana, James and Jake, every one of the graduates here today has worked hard and achieved much.

And if we have done it right, a world has been opened to you here, a world of ideas and possibilities and questions. A world that you will carry with you as you leave this place and begin to put your education to use on many complex issues.

While you were here, I hope you learned about and absorbed the meaning of what we call the Wisconsin Idea. That declares that knowledge is of value not just for its own sake, but for how it can be used in the world, and that this university, as well as all of our graduates, are responsible for sharing its expertise with the state, the nation, and the world.

I hope you feel a calling, as a University of Wisconsin graduate, to use your education in ways that serve the community around you.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what you’re all going to do next. Wherever your path leads, I hope your time here has made you a better person: a better worker, a better citizen, a better partner, a better friend.

You’re now part of the family of 400,000 Badgers across the globe, proud graduates of one of the nation’s top 25 universities. I hope you stay connected to each other. And wherever you go, be sure to come back and visit us every so often here in Madison and tell us how you’re doing.

So thank you for all that every one of you has done as part of this university community and best wishes on all you’re going to do in the years ahead.

Congratulations … and On, Wisconsin!