MADISON — Just prior to the start of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s spring commencement ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium Saturday, Meg Mercy kissed her two teenage daughters goodbye in the stands and headed to a seat with her fellow graduates.
Mercy earned a bachelor’s degree in social work Saturday, many years after becoming a mother and 19 years after beginning classes at UW–Madison. She considers her daughters equal partners in her achievements.
“This journey has been the three of us making our way together, so it feels like our accomplishment,” Mercy said.
Saturday’s commencement ceremony was full of stories like that — of graduates thanking their family members, their friends, their professors. It was a day of gratitude, pride and jubilation for a crowd of about 44,800 people.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy — this diploma is a key to my future,” said Hezouwe Walada, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry with a certificate in global health.
Walada grew up in the West African country of Togo, where a malaria epidemic when he was a child killed a third of the people in his village. He decided then and there to become a physician. He plans to apply to medical school.
The Camp Randall ceremony was part of a weekend of commencement festivities that resulted in a grand total of 8,625 students receiving their degrees. Friday evening at the Kohl Center, diplomas were awarded to about 800 doctoral, master of fine arts and medical professional degree candidates. Saturday’s ceremony was for bachelor’s, master’s and law degree candidates.
On an overcast day at Camp Randall, Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin told the crowd, “Today, we confer 7,826 degrees, making this the largest commencement ceremony in the history of this great university.”
Mnookin said the graduates’ achievements were extra impressive given that most of them were just freshmen when the pandemic hit.
“You are graduating into a world that looks pretty different than the one you might have planned for when you arrived here,” Mnookin said. “You’ve learned to adapt to monumental change, and that’s about the only thing we know for sure the future will bring — more change, and sometimes unexpected change. Along the way, you’ve learned a lot about what it means to be a Badger.”
She urged them to continue to find gratitude, to live with purpose, and to be in service to something bigger than themselves.
“And I hope that you will continue to be there for each other,” Mnookin said. “You share a deep bond that will last a lifetime.”
Bending toward justice
Keynote speaker Eric H. Holder Jr., the third-longest serving U.S. attorney general in the country’s history and the father of a Badger alumna, praised graduates for grasping the most urgent issues facing America.
“You’re already leading the way,” Holder told them. “Standing up for your most basic rights, fighting for those who are more vulnerable, speaking out against hatred, racism, and bigotry, especially when it rears its head uncomfortably close to home,” in a nod to recent events addressed by student speakers and others at the ceremony.
He noted Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to the UW–Madison campus in 1965 and invoked King’s oft-referenced quote that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
“And that’s true,” Holder said, “but only because throughout our history every generation of Americans — from the battlefield of Gettysburg to the beaches of Normandy, from Selma to Montgomery to a tavern named Stonewall — every generation has been called to put their hands on that arc and pull it towards justice. To protect, to renew and to expand our democracy, and to strengthen our capacity for self-determination. Every generation. And no American generation has failed.”
It is now the Class of 2023’s turn, Holder said.
“That arc will not bend unless you pull it — little by little, day after day, year after year, with determination and with commitment.”
There was no shortage of fun Saturday — “Jump Around” and fireworks! — but interim Provost Eric Wilcots said it was also appropriate and important to acknowledge the difficult weeks leading up to the ceremony. On May 1, a video of a UW–Madison student making racist and hateful comments went viral on social media, sparking outrage and protests. During their remarks, Wilcots and Chancellor Mnookin both condemned the video.
A pair of seniors, invited to speak by the senior class officers with the support of the Chancellor’s Office, addressed the issue and shared their experiences as Black students on a predominantly white campus. Sydney Bobb and Faith Ocoko spoke of both positive experiences and significant challenges. Both are members of the Blk Pwr Coalition, which formed in response to the video.
Bobb, of Boston, said the racist video shook UW–Madison’s Black student body. “I say shook and not stunned, because we’ve seen this before.”
She praised the efforts of the Blk Pwr Coalition. ”Your hard work is not in vain,” Bobb said. “Rest if you must, but don’t you quit. If no one has us, we have us. If they don’t see us, make them feel us.”
Ocoko, of Milwaukee, thanked those who led the 1969 Black Student Strike at UW–Madison, saying that without them, today’s students would not have the Department of African American Studies or organizations like the Blk Pwr Coalition.
“We are upholding a legacy that has been bestowed upon us by the hundreds of black people that have put in years of work for us to be here,” Ocoko said.
Liam McLean, senior class president, offered remarks on behalf of the class of 2023. He recounted how a serious speech and language delay as a child made him the target of relentless bullying. Now, he leans into that experience to help others be heard.
“Looking back on this, I realized my motivation for becoming the best communicator I could be was rooted in how the speech challenges impacted me,” said McLean, of Fox Point, Wisconsin.
That experience revealed a deeper philosophical truth that he believes has shaped the class of 2023, he said.
“The truth is that adversity is the seed of greatness,” he said. “The truth is, if we are to become great, we must confront adversity. This is how we found our greatness as a class, and this is how we will become great as Generation Z.”
Mercy, the graduate with the teenage daughters in the stands, said she was unable to complete her freshman year at UW in 2004 because she couldn’t access financial aid. She returned in 2020 and made the most of it, winning one of the most prestigious undergraduate awards on campus. She will begin medical school this summer.
“I know how proud my daughters have been of me these past three years,” Mercy said. “This feels like the culmination of all of the work and celebrations and successes we’ve had together.”