University of Wisconsin graduates gathered Dec. 19 decked out in caps and gowns to celebrate the first in-person commencement with family and friends since 2019.

With 5,954 people filtering through the rows of the Kohl Center on Sunday, UW Chancellor Rebecca Blank said this winter’s ceremony marks the first commencement to include family and friends since Dec. 2019.

This graduating class experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, return of the Statue of Liberty on Lake Mendota, the Black Lives Matter protests, Barry Alvarez’s farewell and the first starship food delivery robots on campus, Blank said.

In addition to graduate and undergraduate degrees, UW conferred honorary degrees to V. Craig Jordan, known for his work on breast cancer prevention, and Michael Moore, a pioneer in distance learning. Karen Walsh, vice president of the UW System Board of Regents, announced the honorary degree recipients.

CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju served as the keynote speaker, with mechanical engineering major Jai Khanna filling the role of the keynote student speaker.

Khanna, who served on the Dean of Students and COVID-19 student advisory boards, was unable to return to his home country, India, when the pandemic hit. As an international student, he charted an uncertain course thousands of miles away from his family. His time at UW, however, helped him form connections he is grateful for.

Khanna said students should hold onto the connections they’ve made at the university and capped off his speech with a short beatboxing performance.

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As a chief congressional correspondent on Capitol Hill, Raju took a break from digging up inside scoops and breaking news to deliver the commencement speech. Even with big news emerging from the U.S. Capitol this morning about Joe Manchin’s vote against the Build Back Better Act, Raju said he was “not totally upset” he missed the story to be at commencement.

Introduced by Harrison Freuck, a winter graduate and former editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald, Raju’s address focused on his experience as the proud son of two immigrants whose journey began 15,000 miles away from Madison.

When his parents moved to Chicago, making a phone call to family was too expensive. Instead, they would write letters, which could linger in transit for up to 30 days. Their grit and determination is what inspires Raju’s distinctive path from a student on Bascom Hill to a CNN reporter on Capitol Hill.

“While my parents would have to wait for a full four weeks to see a single letter find its way to family in India, you’ll have to wait no more than one generation for their son to find his way onto this elite, beautiful campus in Wisconsin and subsequently to cable television in Washington,” Raju said.

At UW, Raju worked as a sports reporter for The Badger Herald and was also involved with WSUM. He graduated from the business school with a marketing degree and stepped into journalism in what he calls an “unconventional” beginning.

In previous interviews, Raju has said being the one to get the first scoop and break it on live television is what drives him to do exceptional journalism.

In an interview with select news organizations before Sunday’s ceremony, Raju said he faced challenges when joining the workforce, such as being turned down from jobs, which was discouraging and at times frustrating.

“It didn’t necessarily stop me from trying to pursue what I wanted to do, and I continued to work hard, persevere, push through — and things eventually worked out,” Raju said.

He brought this sentiment to graduates in his commencement message, urging the winter 2021 class that there is no one path to success in the world. Raju said it’s important to take some risks and not worry if things don’t work immediately — in the long run, they can.

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Raju, a big Badgers fan, said he tries to go to at least one Badger football game every year. Some of his favorite UW traditions include the insistence of Badgers to remain in the Camp Randall stands at the end and celebrate as the fifth quarter rolls around, regardless of the outcome of the game.

Raju encouraged Badgers to take this spirit of endurance with them wherever they may go in the world.

“The Wisconsin way isn’t just how we Jump Around before the fourth quarter ends, it’s also how we stick around when the fifth quarter begins,” Raju said. “Be sure to remember what we do here in Madison — remember that we Jump Around when we see the good, and we can stick around when we can’t yet.”