Thousands of University of Wisconsin students and family members gathered among the construction at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday to celebrate the 169th spring commencement ceremony.
U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and UW alumnus Linda Thomas-Greenfield addressed the crowd as the keynote speaker, encouraging graduates to leave their comfort zones as they step into the future.
“Adversity, discomfort [and] hardship make you braver, smarter and stronger,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “You need to prepare for change and be prepared for challenges and prepared for discomfort.”
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Thomas-Greenfield reflected on her time at UW. While she loved her experience, she said her first days here were uncomfortable to say the least. When she came to UW, it was her first time leaving her hometown in Louisiana. Thomas-Greenfield recalled experiencing her first snowstorm in Wisconsin and having to walk up Bascom Hill to a class at 7:30 a.m. wearing only a light coat and sneakers — it was uncomfortable.
“But coming to Wisconsin, that choice at that point in my life was the best decision I had ever made,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Being uncomfortable here in Madison taught me how to adapt, improve, to learn. It taught me how to overcome challenges and to grow as a person.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic posed many challenges and taught students to be uncomfortable, Thomas-Greenfield said the conflict in Ukraine will continue to challenge graduates.
Thomas-Greenfield said the people of Ukraine went from their ordinary lives to fighting for their lives, family sovereignty, dignity and democracy. The conflict in Ukraine is a fight for democracy on a global scale, Thomas-Greenfield said.
“Trying to predict the future is impossible, but shutting yourself off from the world trying to hide from its problems won’t serve you,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Because global challenges, even those in far-away places, are going to impact you. After all, what is happening in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine. It is also about all of us.”
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In her current role as president of the UN Security Council, Thomas-Greenfield is highlighting food insecurity which she said was amplified by the war in Ukraine. Thomas-Greenfield encouraged students to address these global challenges as a community.
Thomas-Greenfield attributed her interest in foreign affairs to her mentor and UW political science professor Merwin Crawford Young, who encouraged her to travel for research in Liberia. Thomas-Greenfield said Young’s encouragement inspired her to serve in the foreign service and as the first-ever female ambassador of Liberia.
In a press conference prior to the ceremony, Thomas-Greenfield advised the new graduates to be flexible and to “go with the flow” as they face new opportunities and challenges in the future.
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Senior class vice president Barni Shiferaw encouraged his fellow graduates to take chances and face discomfort to achieve success. Shiferaw’s family moved to Wisconsin from Ethiopia when he was a young child — his family had a 0.45% chance of obtaining a green card to move to the U.S.
Shiferaw said this chance is the reason he was able to graduate from UW and though life isn’t fair it gives people chances. He told students to take chances, recognize their value and chase after their goals.
In her final speech as UW chancellor, Rebecca Blank congratulated the roughly 7,000 graduates on their accomplishments, highlighting first-generation graduates, women’s athletic teams and Black Greek life. Blank celebrated the return to a normal graduation ceremony after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t know about you, but for me, there is no substitute for this where we are really together,” Blank said.
The 2022 spring commencement will be Blank’s last commencement here at UW as she will be leaving for her new position as president of Northwestern University at the end of May.