Chancellor Blank’s Fall 2018 Convocation remarks (with video)


(Remarks as prepared for delivery Tuesday, Sept. 4, 10:45 a.m.)

Good morning new Badgers, and welcome to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, one of the nation’s top public universities!

I hope you’ve had a chance to find your way around campus, and that you enjoyed being in Madison last Friday night for the first game day of the season. Madison is always rocking before and after a football game.

You’re a pretty special class this year. The 2018 freshman class is the largest in UW-Madison history – which means that the graduating Class of 2022 is going to be great! And we have more than 1,000 transfer students joining us this fall as well who will be graduating even sooner.

The freshmen here were selected from a record-breaking pool of applicants … more than 43,000 applied for about 6,800 spots.

You are all here because you are highly qualified academically, and because we believe that your talents and interests make you an excellent fit for this great university. Congratulations!

Let me tell you a little bit about the people sitting around you.

• You come from 48 different states (somehow, we missed Wyoming and West Virginia this year) and 45 countries.

• More than half of you are from the great state of Wisconsin• And I am very proud to say that many of our new freshmen and new transfer students are the first generation in their family to go to college. Special congratulations and welcome to them.

Studying at a major research institution is an extraordinary experience – you can choose from among 124 majors, learn from world-renowned faculty, participate in groundbreaking research, and spend a semester abroad in almost any country in the world.

But this is a place that can feel a little overwhelming, particularly when you’re new. So let me exercise my privilege as chancellor to give you three pieces of advice.

First-year students link arms and sing “Varsity” at the end of the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students, a Wisconsin Welcome event held at the Kohl Center. (Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

First, your primary reason to be at UW is to learn to be a student. So take your academic work seriously. This is a challenging place. The classes are rigorous, and you will need to keep up with the readings and to do the homework. Your parents are no longer around to nag you, it’s up to you to get the work done.

A special warning: the students who get in the most academic trouble in their first year are often those who party too much. There is a strong correlation between high-risk drinking and academic failure – particularly for freshmen. So be aware of your limits, take care of your health and be smart about the choices you’re making.

Second, get involved in activities outside the classroom. That’s the best way to make friends. There are more than 1,000 student organizations on this campus, and lots of other opportunities – like the Badger Volunteers, who work together on all sorts of projects in the community.

Getting involved is not only good for your social life, it’s an important part of your education here. If you leave UW with only classroom learning, we haven’t done our job. You are here for a residential learning experience, and that means that it needs to stretch far beyond your classes. Expand what you know through by volunteer work, internships, participation and leadership in student organizations, and study abroad.

Why should we care about how you spend your out-of-classroom time? Because, in addition to academic learning, we want you to expand your capacity for empathy and humility, your curiosity, your understanding of people from very different cultures and backgrounds, and your intellectual confidence. So that by the time you graduate, you are ready to apply your knowledge and skills to make a real difference in the world.

That’s what we call the Wisconsin Experience. Let me illustrate with a story.

Four years ago, a freshman named Hannah Lider sat where you are sitting today. Hannah grew up in Appleton. She was the first person in her family to go to college and she was worried about whether she could succeed here, so she worked tirelessly and got good grades, but she wanted more out of her college experience than just studying for the next exam.

Hannah knew she wanted to study abroad but didn’t know how she’d pay for it or what was possible. So she asked one of her professors for help. And the next thing she knew, she had a summer internship at a neuroscience lab in Bangalore, India.

That experience changed her life.

Hannah returned to UW determined to learn how to speak Hindi, and she added an International Engineering certificate to her biomedical engineering major. She is now back in India, as a Fulbright Scholar, helping to design life-saving medical devices that are simple enough to build and maintain in areas that often don’t even have electricity.

Hannah told us that the biggest surprise about UW was how readily people will help, and how many things she thought might be impossible turned out to be actually pretty easy to accomplish once she asked for advice and help.

Which brings me to my third piece of advice: ask for help. Like many of you, I am from right here in the upper Midwest – I grew up in Minnesota. I learned from my family that I should take care of my own problems and not bother other people with them. Does that sound familiar? That really wasn’t the best thing to learn. Just because you CAN do things on your own doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

The faculty, staff, and advisers are here to work with you and to help you. So if things aren’t going quite the way you want them to, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Now, I know school is just starting, so maybe your toughest issue this week is figuring out if it’s possible to get from Steenbock Hall to Van Hise Hall in less than five minutes. (The answer is yes, but it’s slightly uphill so be prepared to work up a sweat).

Or maybe you’re trying to pick a food cart on library mall. This is a tough decision. I’ve tried them all, and you really can’t go wrong. There’s a reason Madison’s been named one of the country’s ‘Best Food Cart Cities.’

The point is, you are not alone. Everyone has questions and problems, big and small, and we succeed with the help of those around us. We picked you because we want you here as a student. We know you can be successful. If you hit snags, let us know so we can help.

That’s what it means to be part of a community. But great communities don’t just happen. They take work. You have to get to know each other and get to know yourselves better. For many of you, this is the first time you’ve lived with people who come from very different places, some who look different, speak differently, and see the world in different ways than you do.

If you’re like the rest of us, you’re probably a little bit more comfortable with people whose names and faces and speech are like your own. And it’s a little too easy to hang out just with that group. But in 2018, one of the most important skills to learn for your future careers is how to live and work effectively in a diverse and global community.

So it’s our job to help you mix it up. You’ll take part in the ‘Our Wisconsin’ program to help you recognize and challenge the assumptions you probably don’t even realize you make about other people. And we’ll do our best to get you out and involved in lots of other activities and events, and maybe even push you a bit beyond your comfort zone.

One thing that will bring all of us together is reading and talking about this fall’s Go Big Read book. It’s called “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” and you’ll receive a copy on your way out.

Go Big Read is basically the biggest book club you’ve ever seen. Thousands of people – on campus and around the community – will be reading this book. Your professors might incorporate the book into class discussions, and we’ll have a big campus conversation about it in October, when the author comes here to speak.

Some of our Go Big Read books have been about topics that are a little more removed from students’ lives – but this one is up close and personal. Let me take a survey: How many of you are from any of the following states? Raise your hand and keep it up: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, or the province of Ontario? All of these places abut the Great Lakes. It turns out that about 80 percent of you come from a state that borders on a Great Lake.

The lakes have a huge impact on us and we have a huge impact on them. “The Death and Life of the Great Lakes” might scare you a little bit. It will likely surprise you and, I hope, it will make you think in new ways about these vital natural resources we’ve taken for granted.

Steve Jobs once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

You have come to a university with a long and proud commitment to changing the world by actively engaging on issues that affect people’s lives. We are not afraid of robust debate that allows for many points of view – even those contrary to our values. That’s what free expression is all about.

We value diversity and welcome everyone who wants to learn, to work hard, and to be part of this wonderful community.

Despite all of your different backgrounds, you now share a common identity as Badgers, one that will I hope you will claim for the rest of your lives: you are students – and one day will be alumni – of one of the greatest universities in the world.

Congratulations on being here at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and my very best wishes for your time here as a student.

On, Wisconsin!