The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s class of 2023 took to the field Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium for the spring commencement ceremony.
A total of 8,625 individuals received their degrees, according to the university. The ceremony was also the largest commencement in university history. There were 7,826 degrees conferred to bachelor's, master's and law degree candidates on Saturday.
Many of the bachelor’s degree graduates were first-year students when the COVID-19 pandemic halted in-person classes during the spring of 2020. For these students, commencement offered a time to celebrate and reflect on their time spent at the university.
“We deserve to celebrate,” said Parham Abunasr-Shiraz, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the university’s senior class office. “The class of 2023 has endured a lot, and it has tested our patience and resilience as Badgers.”
In her first spring commencement ceremony since assuming office, Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin reiterated this sentiment, describing the graduating class as “extra impressive.”
“The pandemic changed so much, but it couldn’t take away your exceptional accomplishments or your connections to each other,” she added.
Mnookin also discussed recent campus protests in response to a video of a UW-Madison student spewing racist slurs and hateful words about Black people.
“Events like this illustrate resoundingly that we still have a lot of work to do,” Mnookin said.
In response to the video and subsequent protests, commencement organizers sought out two additional student speakers for the ceremony: Faith Ocoko and Sydney Bobb. Both graduating seniors, they shared their experiences as Black students as well as their hopes for future generations of Black Badgers.
“Coming to a school where the Black population takes up less than 3% was a huge culture shock for me,” Ocoko said about her transition from Milwaukee to Madison for college. “The idea of being surrounded by a diverse population of people to being the only Black person in my classes had become a norm that many of my Black peers and I shared.”
Bobb described a “hostile environment” on campus for Black students, criticizing the university’s response to racist incidents.
“We’ve seen this before — the many missteps that this university and its administrators made in response to the video proved what we had already thought: that this university is not and has never been for our progression as Black students and global citizens,” she said.
However, Bobb underscored her hopefulness for the future, especially for Black student organizers such as those in the Blk Power Coalition. The coalition formed in response to the racist video posted on May 1, which is also National College Decision Day.
“Knowing this university is in the good hands of trailblazers — headstrong and humble Black students — means something to those students who made the choice to attend this university this fall,” Bobb said.
In the keynote address, 82nd U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder extended his congratulations to the class of 2023, urging them to take charge after graduation
“Wisconsin Badgers just don’t sit on the sidelines. You are expected to be in the arena and to lead,” Holder said. “It’s just who you are.”
Holder, who served from 2009 to 2015 under President Barack Obama, was the third-longest serving attorney general in U.S. history and is also the first Black person to hold that office. His daughter Brooke Holder earned a bachelor’s degree from UW-Madison in 2019.
“Class of 2023, it’s your turn,” Holder said to the graduating class. “[The] arc will not bend unless you pull it — little-by-little, day-after-day, year-after-year, with determination and with commitment.”
Messages emphasizing hard work and value-driven action were central to the words of advice bestowed on graduates Saturday afternoon.
“I want all of you to do well, but I also want each and every one of you to do good,” Holder emphasized. “How will you use your newfound power as graduates?”
Mnookin described a “personal GPS” installed in UW-Madison students by the Wisconsin Experience, urging graduates to let its central qualities — gratitude, purpose and service to others — direct them in their endeavors.
“Whatever comes next, I know that you have developed the skills, experiences and connections with others that can guide you and help you on your way,” Mnookin said. “My hope for you is that your time here at UW-Madison has helped you find, and stay true to, your own personal GPS.”
Saturday’s ceremony also included speeches from members of the university’s senior class office, Interim Provost Eric M. Wilcots, UW System Board of Regents Vice President Amy Blumenfeld Bogost, as well as a performance from Redefined, a student acapella group. Doctoral, master of fine arts and medical professional degree candidates were conferred at a ceremony at the Kohl Center on Friday.
Sophia Vento is the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as the college news editor. She has covered breaking campus, city, state and sports news, and written in-depth stories about health, culture and education. Any newsroom would be lucky to have Sophia on staff. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiasvento.