Chancellor Blank’s remarks to Spring 2016 graduates

As prepared for delivery Saturday, May 14, 2016:

Good afternoon. It’s wonderful to see you all here as we celebrate today’s honorees – the Class of 2016!

Friends and family have the best seats in the house – the seats where fans have been cheering on the Badgers for 99 years. Just for the record, that first game was a shutout: we trounced Minnesota.

Today these seats are again filled with loyal Badger fans – people who have supported this morning’s graduates throughout their time at UW. Students: give a round of applause to the family and friends who are here to celebrate with you.

Today we mark your graduation from one of the top 25 universities in the world. You have worked hard both in, and out, of the classroom. The Class of 2016 has helped to drive our record-setting participation in community service and study abroad. UW-Madison is now the #1 public university in the nation for students studying overseas!

You helped us consume 400,000 gallons of Babcock ice cream … battled for Bascom in an epic snowball fight … and, yes, helped Vikings Fan find his Mystery Girl!

You’ve been here at a particularly great time to be a Badger … back-to-back trips to the Final Four (watching the Badgers take down the unbeaten Wildcats was pretty unforgettable) … not to mention a trip to the Rose Bowl when you were freshmen and three consecutive trips to the Women’s Frozen Four.

This class has also followed our campus’ proud tradition of social activism.

A number of you have been deeply involved in a lively debate about campus climate … a debate that’s happening here and around the country. With your help, we’re engaging in the most difficult discussions of ethnicity, race and inclusion in a generation. These discussions are creating opportunities for real change.

All of you have worked hard – perhaps harder than you knew you could. And this class has stood out for its commitment to sharing knowledge and discoveries with the community – that’s what we call the Wisconsin Idea.

You have lived the Wisconsin Idea in all sorts of ways. Here are a few examples: 

Ryan Thompson used his skills in web design, interactive media and videography to transform how we engage the community on environmental issues. Ryan earns a Master’s degree in environmental conservation today.

Kristen Grilli battled a speech disorder as a child, and came to UW with a strong desire to help children facing similar problems. As an undergraduate researcher in our Learning to Talk lab, she has helped to change lives. Kristen will go on to graduate school for speech-language pathology.

Alexandra Arriaga is a Powers-Knapp scholar who won a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship to interview migrants on the U.S.-Mexican border and develop narratives that put a face on immigration. She earns degrees in journalism and Latin American studies today, and plans to work for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

If we’ve 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.

But before we send you off, I want to give you just three pieces of advice that will help you succeed in your career and in your life. 

#1: Keep Taking Risks

Deciding to come to UW-Madison was, for many of you, the biggest, riskiest thing you’ve ever done.

Remember when you first moved in, and you watched your family drive off, and maybe just a small (or not-so-small) part of you wanted to run after them?

That was Samantha Pecore’s reaction when she came here from the Menominee Indian Reservation in Keshena and struggled with culture shock.

Sam graduates today with a degree in gender and women’s studies, and plans to go to law school. But there were lots of moments, especially at first, when she thought she might never make it to this day … and I know many of you went through that.

You got through it in much the same way Sam did … by finding your community here. I hope you’ve learned that things that seem risky and hard at first, get easier if you stick with them.

As you leave college and prepare for your next chapter, there will be scary moments, and times when you doubt yourself. But resist the urge to play it safe. Occasionally, make the choice that seems the hardest and the scariest. Taking risks – even when you don’t succeed – will open up new opportunities and teach you something about yourself and your abilities.

#2 Keep Your Curiosity Alive

The ability to look at something and think: Is there a better way? … That’s your innate curiosity, and besides your diploma, it’s the most valuable thing you’ll bring with you into the world.

Staying curious takes work, because we all tend to slip into patterns that don’t require much thought.

So do something different tomorrow. And no, I don’t mean getting to a new level in Candy Crush. Shake up your routine. Pick up that guitar you haven’t touched in a while. Cook something you’ve never cooked. Run on a different path. Call a friend you’ve lost touch with.

If you challenge yourself, even in small, simple ways, you will find that new ideas and new questions come more easily – and that’s the place where innovation and discovery begin.

#3 Stay Focused on What Matters

Remember those ‘Magic Eye’ pictures that were popular when you were little? The ones that seemed like a sea of random dots, but if you looked in just the right way a hidden picture would emerge?

Some of the dots turned out to be important, right? They were part of the picture. But the others were just distractions.

Life is a little bit like those Magic Eye pictures … you have to learn to focus on what matters – your priorities – and ignore the background noise.

This is one of those skills that take a lifetime of practice, but some of you are already pretty good at it.

Theresa Shurn is a great example. Theresa’s a PEOPLE Scholar who graduates today with a degree in Animal Science. She plans to become a veterinarian.

Like many of you, Theresa did a lot of things beyond classes – like mentoring high school students, singing with the Gospel Choir, participating in discussions about campus climate … even helping to manage a herd of beef cattle as a research assistant. All while maintaining top grades, and dealing with challenging family and personal issues.

Each of you has performed your own amazing juggling act to reach this moment. You’ve figured out when you need to push other things aside and get that paper written. Or how to manage both a work schedule and a homework schedule.

I hope these experiences have taught you something about the things that motivate you to stay focused on your priorities … and about the things that can hold you back.

I can’t tell you how to set priorities that will bring you to your next milestone – whether it’s landing a great job, succeeding in graduate school or backpacking through Europe. But I can tell you that you will go further if you have some goals in mind, if you know what distracts you, and if you know how to focus on getting the important things done.

So take a few moments to assess how you spend most of your time and energy, and ask yourself whether those activities are part of the big picture … or whether they’re just background noise.

Your education has only just begun. In the years ahead, you’re going to have lots of new experiences and opportunities to stretch yourself.

You’re going to meet people you can learn from … and you’re going to meet people who want to learn from you. You will find that teachers learn as much from their students as students learn from their teachers.

I, for one, can’t wait to see what you do next. Wherever your path leads, I hope what you’ve learned here at UW will help you be better – a better worker, a better friend, a better person. Wherever you go, be sure to come back and visit us every so often here in Madison and tell us how you’re doing.

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

Congratulations … and On, Wisconsin!