The University of Wisconsin held a virtual commencement ceremony for 2020 winter graduates Saturday featuring several alumni speakers, including U.S. Women’s National Team soccer player Rose Lavelle.
Chancellor Rebecca Blank opened the ceremony and welcomed students to the virtual commencement. While the online event was not what graduates envisioned, she promised the university would hold an in-person event for all pandemic graduates once it is safe to gather.
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“In the midst of the worst health crisis we’ve faced in a century, Badgers worldwide are using their education as they always have — to solve problems and make people’s lives better … Be persistent and be flexible in the years ahead,” Blank said.
Blank said the ceremony awarded upwards of 2,000 undergraduate degrees and 750 graduate degrees. UW also awarded two honorary doctoral degrees to Virgil Jordan for his work in revolutionizing breast cancer treatment and Michael Moore for expanding educational opportunities as a pioneer of distance learning instruction.
2020 graduate and former UW men’s soccer player Sven Kleinhans gave remarks on behalf of the graduates. Kleinhans said while the student speaker normally begins by congratulating his peers, he said the circumstances of their graduation damped this sentiment.
“I feel just like many of you,” Kleinhans said. “I was excited about my graduation … now it just feels off. It feels like less of an achievement to graduate.”
As an international student from Germany, Kleinhans said his family fell upon hard times before he came to UW, forcing them to live in a van while his mom worked three jobs. When he saw a chance to come play soccer in the Big Ten, Kleinhans said he seized the chance for a “new beginning.”
Kleinhans described his devastating knee injury in soccer that benched him for about a year. He worked relentlessly to recover, and he managed to get back on the field for the first game of the new season. While they won the match, Kleinhans said it was only after the match’s 90 minutes that he realized he was missing something — his family and his relationships, which he neglected in his focus to recover.
“Have no regrets in your 91st minute,” Kleinhas said. “Nothing is more important than healthy relationships. Nothing. Not your goal, and not your success.”
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Keynote speaker and U.S. women’s soccer star Rose Lavelle spoke about her experience at UW as a 2017 graduate. While racking her brain to come up with a speech topic, Lavelle advised students who worked best under pressure to live in the moment and savor their journeys on the way to achievement.
Lavelle reflected on her participation in the USWNT’s 2020 U.S. World Cup win. Though she is always asked how the win changed her life, Lavalle said her life hasn’t changed — rather, the years of practice and the people along the way impacted her the most.
“It’s the moment that we execute under pressure that’s often remembered the most, but it is the culmination of everything that led to that moment that means the most,” Lavelle said.
Reflecting on the pandemic and her past injuries, Lavaelle said graduates should learn to embrace setbacks. While life can throw challenges our way, Lavalle said these challenges allow students to discover a better version of themselves.
UW alumnus from the class of ‘74 John Felder spoke about his participation in the Black Student Strike of 1969 — one of the largest in UW history — on behalf of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. Felder said these protests resulted in the creation of the department of Afro-American studies, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary on campus.
“We wanted to be perceived as individuals — a privilege not historically afforded us having grown up in a world of de facto segregation, institutional racism and American apartheid,” Felder said.
Felder said Black students at UW found each other through the Black Student Union because there were so few of them. The Black Student Union determined 13 demands, which they thought could be easily implemented. Students went on strike when the university administrators at the time disagreed.
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Felder said their strike was Wisconsin-specific, as they hoped to broaden the Black perspective at the university by creating a Black studies department and increasing representation of Black faculty and students across academic disciplines, among other demands. Reflecting on his experience, Felder said he would fight the same way if given the chance to go back, and he encouraged graduates to keep fighting as well.
“If I were to time capsule back to the Wisconsin of the 60s, I would be similarly engaged,” Felder said. “If I were to lose 50 years and be in Wisconsin now, I would double my efforts … Go forth and conquer.”