Chancellor Becky Blank’s Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2017

We’re here to share your excitement — our excitement — about being Badgers, but before we continue, I want to express why our enthusiasm this morning is a bit dampened by sadness.

As some of you may know, a member of your incoming class passed away on August 21 after he drowned in Lake Mendota. Richard de la Cruz, 20, of Wauwatosa [wa-wa-TOE-sa], was a new transfer student from Marquette University. We’re deeply saddened by this loss.

Please join me in a moment of silence in memory of this student.

Thank you.

Now that we’ve taken a moment to reflect, let’s look ahead. This is a formal occasion, but it’s also one filled with anticipation.

I am delighted to be here.  Like you, I’m new on campus and we’re going to be starting here at UW-Madison together. You’ve all been enjoying this moment and taking pictures.  Now it’s my turn.  Everybody smile!

We all come here with our own personal stories – our own history of who we are and the experiences we’ve had.  Your destiny – your future – will be shaped at least in part by what you do here in Madison. We shape this place, and this place shapes us.

The Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith – famous for his books about the Number One Ladies Detective Agency in Botswana – writes that “Regular maps have few surprises… . More precious … are the unpublished maps we make ourselves … here I was happy, in that place I left my coat behind after a party, that is where I met my love; I cried there once, but felt better round the corner once I saw the hills… . things of that sort … make the private tapestry of our lives.”

You too will build memories around the locations of this campus in the years ahead.

Some of your best experiences here are going to come from getting to know your fellow students.  Look around you: these are your friends and colleagues for the next four years.  And they come here with their own stories from many worlds: rural and urban, domestic and international.

One incoming student, Shireen Mathews, shared her story with our convocation committee. She described herself as a writer, an immigrant (from India), a dreamer, a lover of peanut butter… and now she’s a proud Badger.

Like Shireen, we all bring our own complex identities here to create a new community.

We have students from every county in Wisconsin: more Wisconsin freshmen than any class in the past 11 years – more than 3700 of you.

But 18 percent of you are from outside the Midwest. You come from 45 states and Washington DC, and 34 countries – including places like Mongolia, Chile and Ethiopia.

Just about one-fifth of you are first-generation college students – that’s something to be very proud of.

Those of you who are transferring come from almost 300 different schools.

66 percent of you have performed in music, theater or dance.

62 percent of you played a sport.

58 percent of you took part in community service, and we’re hoping that all of you will take part in all of these activities here whether you’ve done them before or not. No time like the present.

Finally, we’re very proud that this year’s class is one of the most ethnically diverse classes we’ve ever had.

Despite all of these different backgrounds, you now share a common identity as Badgers, one that will hopefully connect you for the rest of your lives. You are students – and in a few years, you will be alumni – of one of the greatest universities in the world.

My first piece of advice to you – and I do get to give you advice today – is to take advantage of this diverse community. It’s a little scary to find yourself just one person in the midst of over 7,000 new students. But if you want to really use this experience to its fullest, spend these first few months getting to know the people around you – no matter how different they seem when you first meet them.

The author John Green (have you read Looking for Alaska, or The Fault in Our Stars?)  has a video podcast where someone asks “What’s the meaning of life?” He says, very simply, “Other people.” And “There is no ‘them.’ There are only facets of us.”

As you leave the Kohl Center today, you will receive a copy of “A Tale for the Time Being,” by Ruth Ozeki. This is our campus Go Big Read selection, which will be read by thousands of people on and off campus this fall.   I read this book a few weeks ago.

The novel is about a relationship between two characters who live on opposite sides of the world.  Through complete happenstance, they create a bridge between themselves and across time – though, as the book wonders, perhaps this connection didn’t occur by chance after all. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did.

The book is partially about reaching out across boundaries.  When you reach out, you risk something of yourself; I know that.  But you also create an opportunity to learn something new, to make a new friend, and to figure out how someone else sees the world around them.

My second piece of advice is to not just meet some new people, but also do some new and different things.  Universities are designed to introduce you to new experiences.

You have made the right choice in coming here. Large public research universities such as UW-Madison are especially good at offering a wealth and breadth of classes. You are all equipped to succeed academically here and this entire university is yours for the taking.

Take a class on a topic that you don’t know anything about.  Go talk with your professors during office hours.  Check into the opportunities to work as a research assistant in your field of interest, in a lab, an office or out in the community.  You may have come here with a specific idea of what you want to do in the future, but keep an open mind for this first year.  You may find something you are even more passionate about.

And, out of the classroom, join one of the hundreds of student groups here at UW-Madison – play sports, work in the community, or engage in political action.

Daniel Li made this point beautifully when he wrote to the committee.  He talked about how he “lives through a grid of icons” on the screen of his computer and phone. Now, he says, “as we shift away from slabs of glass glowing in our faces, the Wisconsin Experience will truly unleash.”

So get out of your dorm room – occasionally put down your phone and computer – and figure out what your Wisconsin experience is going to be.

Here’s my final piece of advice for today.   Make sure you have a community of friends and family to support you as you go through these next four years.

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 to the way any of you grew up?  That really wasn’t the best thing to learn.  Just because you CAN do things on your own doesn’t mean you SHOULD.

The friends you make on this campus are not here to replace your family, but to add to them.

Some are your peers, but some of them will be faculty members, dorm staff, or advisors. They’re here to work with you and to help you.  Yes, it’s their job, but it’s also their passion.

So please, if things aren’t going quite the way you want them to, don’t be embarrassed to ask for help, either from your classmates if they can help, or from others. You will be surprised how many resources are available on this campus to assist you, if you just let someone know what you need.

Our new homes aren’t the same as the ones we’ve left behind. They can’t be. But as they say in the tech world, that’s a feature, not a bug.

Because every day that you’re here on campus, you’re creating a new chapter in your own story.

In our Go Big Read book, Ruth Ozeki writes that “… because we are always changing, the words you read today mean something very different from those same words if read a month or a year from now.”

I promise: at the end of this first semester, you will have changed…you will read the words differently. That is the nature of the adventure on which you are embarking by coming to UW-Madison.

I hope you will thrive in this community and learn to love it as much as the many other people who have been here over the past 165 years.

As a fellow newbie here at UW-Madison, I’ll be exploring this university with you. I look forward to being part of the next chapter of your story here in Madison, and I am delighted that you are going to be part of mine.

So I’ll see all of you around campus in the next several months.  If I look lost, I hope you’ll help me out.  And if you look lost, I promise to help you.

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

Thank you, and On, Wisconsin!

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