MADISON — As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield sits at the epicenter of diplomatic efforts to bring peace and democracy to the world.
Saturday, as keynote speaker for the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s 2022 spring commencement, Thomas-Greenfield said her education at UW–Madison helped prepare her for that role.
“I loved my Wisconsin experience,” she told graduates from the stage of Camp Randall Stadium. “It made me who I am today.”
Thomas-Greenfield earned a master’s degree in 1975 from the Center for the Study of Public Policy and Administration at UW–Madison, the precursor to the La Follette School of Public Affairs. She also did work toward a doctorate at UW–Madison.
An estimated crowd of just over 42,000 people, including graduates, heard Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks at Camp Randall, with many more watching by livestream from around the world.
The ceremony was part of a weekend of commencement festivities. Friday evening at the Kohl Center, diplomas were awarded to doctoral, MFA and medical professional degree candidates. Saturday’s ceremony was for bachelor’s, master’s and law degree candidates. In total, about 7,700 students earned degrees from UW–Madison this spring.
Saturday’s ceremony marked many firsts and lasts.
It was the first spring commencement ceremony since 2019 that was in person and open to all family members and friends. Due to the pandemic, the 2020 spring commencement ceremony was virtual, and last year’s ceremony at Camp Randall was open only to graduates.
“All of the feelings I’ve had over the past year have really caught up with me today,” said Meghan Breslin, of Park Ridge, Illinois, who missed last year’s spring commencement as an undergraduate because she tested positive for COVID-19 the day before the ceremony.
This past academic year, she returned to campus and completed an accelerated master’s degree in industrial engineering. This time, she successfully made it to Camp Randall to celebrate.
Saturday marked the first time the flag of the Ho-Chunk Nation flew alongside the U.S. flag and the Wisconsin state flag on commencement stages at UW–Madison. In 2019, UW–Madison dedicated the Our Shared Future heritage marker on Bascom Hill, recognizing the land as the ancestral home of the Ho-Chunk.
Also Saturday, the first full class of Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipients graduated — about 600 students. The groundbreaking initiative, launched four years ago, provides free tuition all four years to any Wisconsin resident who gets accepted to UW–Madison and whose family’s annual household adjusted gross income is $60,000 or less.
“It was definitely stressful in high school not knowing if I’d be able to afford college,” said Tanner Wagner-Durr, of Athens, Wisconsin, a Bucky’s Tuition Promise recipient who triple majored in finance, investment, and banking; information systems; and economics. “It took so much of the worry out of it.”
Another big bonus: He’s graduating debt-free.
This was the last Badger commencement for Chancellor Rebecca Blank, who is moving on to the presidency of Northwestern University.
“In my nine years leading this great university, some of my most memorable moments have been with our students,” Blank told graduates Saturday. “You have inspired — and occasionally challenged me — with your passion, enthusiasm, and curiosity. And I’ll admit you’ve given me a good laugh with some of your ‘Becky Blank’ memes.”
Barni Shiferaw, the senior class vice president and Saturday’s student commencement speaker, said the celebration came with mixed feelings.
“In the past few days, there have been a lot of lasts,” he told his fellow graduates. “The last class. The last test. The last day at The Terrace. The last night out on the town. And I’m not going to lie, it’s a bittersweet feeling. But that feeling means something. It’s a testament to the place this university holds in our hearts.”
For some graduates, a big part of the excitement was getting to hear Thomas-Greenfield, who drew huge cheers whenever her name was announced. Weaving the personal and professional, she described both her own journey in higher education and the momentous state of current events.
Her flight to UW–Madison as a graduate student in 1974 was her first time on an airplane, she said. It also was her first time above the Mason-Dixon line and her first time leaving her home state of Louisiana.
“I had no family here, no friends. Most people were white, I was not,” she said. “Instead of my grits and gumbo, you gave me brats and cheese curds. Oh, and yes – Rocky Rococo Pizza at $1 a slice on State Street.”
All that was quite different, she said, and it made her uncomfortable. But she encouraged graduates to embrace that feeling in their lives.
Don’t stay comfortable
“If you stay comfortable — if you stay in your comfort zone, sticking to what you know — then you are making a bet,” she said. “You are betting that your life, and the world, will stay the same. And let me tell you, you will lose that bet every time.”
The pandemic showed how quickly life can change, she said, as does the situation in Ukraine.
“One day (the people of Ukraine) were going about their ordinary lives, just like you. The next, they were fighting for their families, for their sovereignty, for their dignity — for their democracy and ours.”
What’s happening in Ukraine is not just about Ukraine — it’s about all of us, Thomas-Greenfield said.
“(It) puts a fine point on just how important it is that we cherish our own hard-won freedoms — and that we take action to protect them, from voting and volunteering to marching and protesting.”
Finally, she asked graduates to remember the most important lesson they learned at UW–Madison.
“More important than any test, any homework assignment, any class at all. That lesson: Be Kind. That two-word mantra has guided me my entire career.”
Graduate Taobo Wang of Beijing listened to Thomas-Greenfield while wearing a commencement cap adorned with an image of the state Capitol that he painted himself. He fell in love with the city during his time on campus, he said, and spent many hours hanging out on the Capitol Square.
He earned a double-major in chemistry and chemical engineering Saturday and is now off to Harvard University for a Ph.D.
But Madison? It will live with him forever, he said.
“I’ll keep this cap my entire life as a reminder of all the great memories I made here.”