2017 Commencement address

Good afternoon.  Welcome to Camp Randall Stadium and to the 164th spring commencement of the University of Wisconsin at Madison!

Today, close to 7,000 bachelor’s and master’s degree candidates will become alumni of one of the world’s greatest universities.

This year’s graduating class is one of the largest in our history and congratulations to each and every one of you!

Camp Randall Stadium is marking a major milestone of its own this year—its 100th birthday.  And just for the record, our first game here in 1917 was a shutout—when we trounced the University of Minnesota.

If the iconic setting and the outstanding graduates aren’t enough, we also have a remarkably talented and successful keynote speaker—UW alum Steven Levitan, who is also here.  Steven, thank you for coming.

The Wisconsin Experience

Class of 2017, you have earned a degree from one of the top 25 universities in the world.

That wouldn’t have been possible without the love and support of the family and friends who are around us at Camp Randall.   Graduates, please join me in giving everyone in the bleachers a round of applause.

Before we talk about what’s next, let me invite you to just enjoy these last few moments together with your classmates, to remember:

  • Remember how unexpectedly delicious orange-custard-chocolate-chip ice cream is … especially when eaten on the Union Terrace.
  • Remember some seriously big Battles for Bascom.
  • Remember the Bowl games … the Women’s Frozen Four … back-to-back trips to the Final Four … and many more great Badger moments.
  • Remember marching side-by-side for justice … for equality … for women… or for science.
  • And remember some of the difficult moments. Moments that I hope have brought us together as a community to think about who we are, and how we want to live.

I also want to say a word in memory of a bright and talented member of the UW family, Wenxin Huai—better known as Wendy.  Wendy’s death by an alleged drunken driver less than a month ago, just weeks before she was to graduate, makes this a bittersweet moment—especially for the classmates, friends, and teachers who knew her best.

There are others in your class who also did not make it to graduation, and we remember them all.

Today is about celebrating your accomplishments.   The Class of 2017 is a remarkable group, with talented, diverse students like…

  • Catherine Finedore, who’s combining a degree in Biomedical Engineering with her interest in fashion design to create high-tech clothing for people with injuries and disabilities.
  • Deshawn McKinney, who won two of this nation’s most prestigious scholarships and is now off to the London School of Economics with a Marshall Scholarship to pursue a master’s degree.
  • And Helena Record and Jackie Laistch, who never imagined when they came here that part of their UW experience would involve bringing Wisconsin dairy cows to a village in eastern Africa. That experience convinced them both to pursue graduate work in public health.

Defining success

All of you are graduating at a time when this nation and world face enormous challenges.   I hope that you will be successful in bringing what you’ve learned here to meet those challenges.

How you do that will be up to you, but the first step is to figure out what “being successful” means.

Let me tell you how one of our alums answered that question.

How many of you own a “Sconnie” t-shirt?  I’m not going to ask how many of you are wearing one under their gown?

For those of you from out of town:  A “Sconnie” is anyone who loves Wisconsin … with extra points if you eat brats, cheer for the Badgers, know what a bubbler is, or own a mailbox shaped like a tractor.

The “Sconnie Nation” t-shirt was born in one of our freshman dorms – the invention of a student named Troy Vosseler.   Sconnie was a runaway success … but Troy wasn’t satisfied.   He realized that being successful meant more than just running his own start-up company.  It also meant sharing what he’s learned with others.  So he formed a business incubator called gener8tor to help entrepreneurs launch new businesses.

Each of you has been educated in the UW tradition of public service—what we call the Wisconsin Idea. I hope one of the things you’ve learned is that success means serving a cause – as Troy does – that is bigger than yourself.

Two rules for success

But knowing what success means, and becoming successful are two different things.  Kind of like the difference between wanting to be a doctor … and actually finishing medical school.

I can’t tell you exactly how to be successful, but I can give you a couple of rules for success.

First, ask the right questions

All of you have made some important choices so far in your life.  You chose to come to UW.  You decided what program of study you wanted to pursue.

You’ll face more choices at every step along the way, in your job, in your future schooling, and in your personal life.  When those choices are in front of you, here’s what you want to ask:

What do I love to do?  What am I good at?  Which of these choices will help me to come closer to the person I want to be?

These are the questions that will lead you in the right direction and help you set your next goal.

Now I know there are a few of you who have already asked these questions.  Some of you quickly decided after arriving at UW to combine what you loved to do … and you were good at … by sampling the menu on every food cart on library mall.

That’s good.

Now try asking these questions when you think about a slightly … larger … goal.  Find the place where your skills and your passion come together, and you’ll find where you can be successful.

Rule #2. Taking risks

None of us succeeds by playing it safe all the time.  I hope that we have taught you to push your boundaries – even when that scares you a little bit.

Trying new things will teach you a lot about yourself – even (and maybe especially) when you don’t succeed.

  • Abraham Lincoln lost 8 elections.
  • Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
  • And before he co-founded Microsoft, Bill Gates started another company called ‘Traf-o-Data” – a major flop.

The key to success is not avoiding risksit’s embracing them, and learning from the result.


Wherever your path leads next, I hope that you will define your success by the difference you make in the world.

I hope you will find work that you love, and have the opportunity to work with people you can learn from, and who in turn can learn from you.

I can’t wait to hear what each of you does next.  But wherever you go, be sure to come back and visit us every so often here in Madison.  You will always be part of UW and I hope that UW will always be part of you.

Thank you for making this university a better place while you were here.

Congratulations to all of you. And On Wisconsin!