Following a year defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Wisconsin 2021 undergraduates gathered in-person at Camp Randall Saturday to celebrate commencement featuring keynote speaker André De Shields.

Over 5,167 graduates and university faculty attended the commencement ceremony, according to UW spokesperson Meredith McGlone. The ceremony was limited to Spring 2021 graduates only. To enter Camp Randall for the ceremony, graduates had to have a recent negative COVID-19 test and show a green Badger Badge.

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With a perimeter surrounding the stadium from Engineering Drive wrapping around Monroe Street to Breese Terrace Drive, graduates parted ways with guests to enter stadium grounds. The event was live streamed for friends and family to join the celebration from a distance. 

Spread out across the stands and the field, graduates could request to be seated with up to four friends in socially-distanced groups. Emotions ran high for graduates who anxiously awaited the in-person commencement after a year filled with COVID-19 related challenges. 

Ifunanya Chris-Ukah, who graduated with a degree in biology, said the chance to be in Camp Randall was extremely rewarding.

“To hear that we were getting [an in person graduation] made me really happy,” Chris-Ukah said. “It’s sad that our families cannot be here physically, but it’s still such a celebration.”

Despite uncertainty that commencement would happen this spring, Blank said she was honored to welcome graduates back for the age-old tradition of commencement in Camp Randall in the first in-person ceremony since December 2019.

Blank said the class of 2021 completed their degrees amid a “convergence of crises,” including the pandemic, economic uncertainty, political polarization and reinvigorated calls to take action against racism and injustice.

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“Just a few months ago, it wasn’t at all clear that we’d be jumping around here at Camp Randall,” Blank said. “Every graduate who has sat where you sit today has faced many challenges to reach this moment, but few of them have faced extraordinary challenges that you have.”

Broadway star André de Shields delivered his keynote speech for the class virtually via a pre-recorded video. 

De Shields encouraged graduates to embrace the “eternal spirit” of humanity. In an adapted version of carpe diem, De Shields told graduates to instead “carpe donum” — to “seize the gift” — as they head out into the world.

“This is what I charge you with — understand that there is no one like you. There has never been anyone like you. And there shall never be anyone like you,” De Shields said. “Therefore, know yourself. Be yourself. Authenticity is everything.”

Amid the pandemic and the largest social justice movement the nation has ever witnessed, De Shields said graduates will enter the world at a powerful intersection of evolution and history. 

While the “sky is falling,” De Shields said graduates are poised in a unique position to use the privilege of their education and creativity to take responsibility and shape the future. 

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“The sky is falling, and it’s falling into your hands,” De Shields said. “You have to make use of your limitless imagination and allow this old world, that’s yearning to die, let it die. Use your imagination in helping this new world, that’s eager to be born, to come to life.”

Senior Class Office Philanthropy Chair Lusayo Mwakatika also delivered the keynote student speaker address about the lessons he learned after coming to UW from his home in Malawi. 

The entire commencement ceremony can be viewed on UW’s YouTube channel.