Union South – Varsity Hall
Sat Oct 9, 2021
Thank you, Argyle, for that kind introduction. Welcome to the University of Wisconsin! I am delighted that you’re here.
Parents: How many of you are alumni? Welcome back, and thank you for continuing the tradition!
How many of you are new to UW–Madison – meaning that your student is the first person in your family to come here? Welcome to the Badger family!
Thank you all for raising these happy, healthy, curious people – and for sending them to us.
My daughter is a recent college graduate, and I remember well that first fall.
I know how much you want to do everything you can to help your children succeed – even as you know that it’s time to move away from daily involvement in their lives and let them be more independent. This can be particularly hard after a COVID year when parents … hovered … a little more. But this is their time to become independent and your time to let go.
Points of pride
The good news is, your students have chosen well. UW–Madison is an amazing place – I know that’s true because I’m here every day talking to our students and faculty, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Let me share with you a few statistics we received just last week that say a lot about student success here at UW.
- Our freshmen retention rate – that’s freshmen who re-enroll for sophomore year – is more than 95%. That’s well above the Big Ten average and it tells us our students are having an outstanding experience.
- Our graduation rates are also at an all-time high … and time-to-degree declined again this year, which is critically important to keeping student debt levels down.
- 57% of our students leave UW with zero student-loan debt. That’s far above the national average.
- And those who do take out student loans pay them off – our default rate is substantially below the national rate, which confirms two things we already knew – our students are highly responsible, and they’re landing great jobs.
- These numbers reflect the investment we’ve made in scholarships and academic and career advising, and our focus on educational quality.
- And they are part of the reason that we were recently named the top public university in the country by Washington Monthly, and 4th overall behind Stanford, MIT, and Duke and ahead of Harvard.
Given all of this, it’s not surprising that we are something of a hot school right now. Our applications have more than doubled in less than a decade.
The Wisconsin Experience
In part, this reflects the thoughtful design of what we call the Wisconsin Experience – it’s an experience designed to build skills beyond academic learning through, for example:
- Study abroad. We are now the #4 public university in the country for students participating in study-abroad programs.
- Community service. In a typical year, 1,500 students participate in volunteer activities with dozens of community groups. They’re organized into small groups, so it’s a great way to get to know other students. And they can choose projects related to either education, sustainability, or public health.
- Faculty research. Nearly 40% of our seniors have worked with faculty on a research project.
- Internships to prepare students for jobs. Two-thirds of our seniors have held an internship or participated in a career-related experience in their time here.
- Leadership and campus engagement opportunities. We have close to 1,000 student organizations on campus, and many of our students are involved in leading these groups. At the start of the year, we hold a Student Org Fair – this year, we had about 13,000 students turn out, which is a new record and tells you something about how eager the students are to re-engage in person.
The students are also thrilled to be back in the classroom and not on Zoom sessions … and our faculty feel the same way. We know that being together, in person, leads to the best educational outcomes, and that’s especially true for freshmen.
The good news is, we are in a much different place than we were last fall. We have a very high vaccination rate. 93% of our students, 94% of all employees and more than 99% of our faculty are fully vaccinated, and the numbers are continuing to grow – especially among students.
Those who are not vaccinated are required to test weekly, and our 7-day positivity rate is very low – right around 1%.
I can’t tell you exactly what the next few months will bring, but I can assure you that we have some of the world’s leading public health experts right here on campus, and they will continue to work with us to be sure these numbers stay low, and to help us revise our health protocols as necessary.
One of my greatest joys as chancellor is seeing our new students get to know the campus, make new friends, and get excited about whole new worlds opening up to them here at UW.
A campus of breadth and scope
UW–Madison has a breadth and scope that is hard to find anywhere else. Your student will be able to choose from 129 majors (the three largest majors right now are Computer Science, Economics, and Psychology). They will be immersed in an environment of academic rigor, creativity and innovation that will challenge them to do more than they imagined they could.
Lots of liberal arts colleges promote themselves by claiming that ‘small is beautiful.’ But when it comes to universities, I truly believe that ‘bigger is better.’
The freshman class
I spoke to your students at Freshman Convocation last month, and I want to share with you a few of the things I told them.
First, the new freshman class is already making history. We had a record-breaking pool of applicants to UW–Madison this fall – 54,000 students applied for about 8,400 spots. Those of you who have a freshman this year can be very proud that they rose to the top in an unusually competitive environment!
Let me give you a few statistics about the new class:
- It includes more students from Wisconsin – the highest number in the past 20 years.
- Our out-of-state students come from 49 U.S. states (missing North Dakota) … 45 countries outside the U.S. … and 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
- After Wisconsin, Illinois is our #2 state for freshmen, followed by Minnesota, California, New York, and New Jersey.
- For the fifth year in a row, we have a substantial increase in the number of National Merit finalists in our freshman class – another measure of our high quality.
- And here’s one of the statistics I’m most proud of: About two out of every 10 new freshmen, and three out of every 10 new transfer students, are the first generation in their family to go to college. To those students and their families, I want to say a special congratulations on this tremendous accomplishment!
I know that all of you have put time and energy into making sure that your child got to this point. I want to thank you for the homework help, the carpools, and the sacrifices you’ve made in order to support your student.
That includes financial support. A college education is one of the biggest investments most of us will ever make – and it’s also one of the best.
One of things we’re working hard on is to make this campus a place that is truly welcoming of all people.
Diversity enriches every student’s education, and it’s a critical part of preparing our graduates to succeed in a global economy.
I am happy to tell you that this year’s freshman class is one of our most diverse ever:
- The share of students of color in our freshman class is just over 25%, an all-time high, and
- The share of students of color from historically underrepresented groups in our freshman class is also at an all-time high of 14.8%. Both of these are up substantially from just a few years ago.
For many of our students, this is the first time they’ve lived with people who look different, speak differently, and see the world in different ways than they do – so it’s our job to help them build a community. To do that we have to push them a little beyond their comfort zones. If you have a freshman, they took part in a program called Our Wisconsin – I encourage you to ask them what they learned.
Helping your student succeed
You will continue to be a critical source of support for your student – and one of the key resources to help you stay connected is the Parent and Family Program.
Parents and family are tremendously important to the university and to student success – and there are really just three key ingredients your student needs to succeed here.
First, they need to study hard and take academic work seriously.
UW is an academically challenging place. The classes are rigorous, and the college experience can, for some students, seem overwhelming at times.
Your student may worry that this isn’t the place for them. That’s normal – particularly for first-semester freshmen. They need to know it’s OK to ask for help. There are many resources available to assist with any issue – academic or personal – and I hope you will encourage your student to reach out. The worst thing that new students do is struggle alone without asking for help.
The second ingredient for success is a community of friends.
That means taking part in activities outside the classroom, as I mentioned earlier. Many of our alumni have lifelong friends they met as freshmen in their residence hall.
The third ingredient for success is to take care of their health.
That means getting vaccinated, wearing a mask indoors, eating well, and getting regular exercise (you’ve heard about the new Nick, where many of your students will spend significant time … and we hope to also open the new Bakke Recreation and Wellbeing Center in a few years while they are here).
Staying healthy also means not abusing alcohol or other drugs or taking foolish risks. We spend a lot of time at freshman orientation talking about how excess drinking can affect personal and academic success.
We also talk to our students about sexual violence. This is a serious problem on college campuses across this country – including this one.
This is a relatively safe community. But no place is entirely safe.
Your students are hearing a lot from us on how to be safe and take care of themselves. Common sense things like don’t walk alone at night … be aware of your surroundings … don’t wear headphones if you do have to walk alone. And know when to step in when you see a fellow student who might need help. Thank you for being our partner in reinforcing these messages.
Student story – Kevin Crosby
I’ve tried to give you a sense for what makes this campus so special, but the best way to understand the Wisconsin Experience is to look at what our recent graduates are up to. Let me tell you about just one of them.
Kevin Crosby earned a bachelor’s degree in Nutritional Sciences with a certificate in Environmental Studies in 2020.
Kevin grew up in Washington, D.C. He came to UW as part of the Posse Program, which is a scholarship program that works in several major U.S. cities to identify outstanding students who are likely to thrive here at UW – many of them are students of color who are the first generation in their family to go to college.
Kevin was excited to be here, but when he got to campus, he started to doubt that this was the right place for him. Like so many of our students, he worried about making friends and what he should major in.
He worked with his advisors to find opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom that aligned with his interests, and ultimately became deeply engaged in several of the programs I’ve mentioned to you:
- He did biomedical research with one of our professors,
- Worked as a Badger Volunteer,
- Became a peer tutor at our Physics Learning Center, and
- Relaxed by going on runs and playing his trumpet (not at the same time).
And in his senior year, Kevin was one of three of our students to be selected as finalists for the nation’s most prestigious academic honor, the Rhodes Scholarship.
A few months ago, he completed a master’s in public health at Cambridge University in the U.K., and he has just started his first year of medical school at Columbia University in New York City.
Kevin is wonderful, but in many ways he’s not all that different from his peers here at UW. Our students are smart, strong, capable, and focused. It’s our job to launch them into new worlds of learning … and it’s our privilege to watch them achieve amazing things.
I am deeply grateful for the many ways in which you support your students and contribute to our community – and I want to say a special thanks to those of you who have supported our Parents Fund, which helps us add to our resources for career advising, for student recreational sports, and much more.
I am so happy to welcome you all to the Badger family. Enjoy the weekend, thank you, and On, Wisconsin!