This is it! You made it! The big day our graduates have been waiting for has finally arrived. Congratulations to our gender and women’s studies graduating class of 2020! Congratulations to both GWS majors and certificates as well as the LGBTQ+ Studies certificates! And many thanks to the proud parents, siblings, friends and other family members who have supported you.
Today is a day to be grateful that all your hard work has paid off and you have finally come to this point in your life when you are now transitioning into a new phase. It goes without saying that some plans may be postponed or may seem uncertain. These are the times we live in. But sooner or later you will be transitioning into the world of work, or into a graduate or professional school. Life will go on and we will move on from these challenging days.
This is a time to thank all the people who helped get you this far: those who were there for you when you needed them, those who provided sage advice, those who diligently taught you, and of course, those who helped pay for your studies. And don’t forget to thank your mothers again this weekend on Mother’s Day!
You are graduating at a time of great uncertainty. Some students are being affected by this virus more than others. But we must face our challenges like other generations have, with courage, calm, and strength. Even though we are physically distant, we are together in this struggle to maintain our collective and individual health and well-being. But this is not just a challenge to stay healthy and alive, it is also a challenge to find meaning in the process.
As I said, every generation has had faced its hurdles. My father grew up in a town near Racine during the Great Depression and his grandmother raised him and his siblings because his father had abandoned his family and his mother had died when he was four. They were dirt poor. During the Depression, from the time he was seven years old, he earned money by collecting metal and paper to sell to a vendor. He later worked at Allis Chalmers and then at the age of 18 during World War II he joined the air force and was went to the United Kingdom to fly bombers over Germany. My mother, who grew up in Finland, fought on the frontline against Soviet Union during the Winter War in 1939, at a time when Finland’s independence was at stake. At the age of 14 her father took her to a boat which took her to an island in the middle of the night, where she fed soldiers on the frontline. She also later shot down planes as part of an anti-aircraft artillery crew. As a result of my mother and hundreds of thousands of soldiers, Finland was able to remain independent to this day. My generation was drafted to fight in the Vietnam War or chose to resist the draft and faced the consequences of that decision. Others protested to oppose the war.
Generations before us have made sacrifices to save their country. And so, we now have to make sacrifices for the greater good of the country and humanity by keeping our physical distance from each other. People are losing their incomes, jobs, their houses, even their lives at this time. As I said, I think the challenge for us now is to find meaning in all of this. We can find ways to be of service to others, including family members, and to friends. We can think about how we can help people who are really suffering. We need to understand why this virus is affecting people differently, especially the elderly in long-term care facilities, women in abusive domestic situations, people of color, the homeless, prisoners, and many others. We can use this time to learn about ourselves and be curious about the society we live in. It is a good time to read, to learn new skills and languages, but also to be creative, have fun, and to engage in physical activity.
GWS students and LGBTQ+ Studies students will get through this and I know you will rise to the occasion, to the challenges this period in history presents. You are hardworking and resilient. You didn’t study just to get a grade or a degree or a job or to check off the “college, done that” box. Of course, you want a degree and a job, but there has been so much more to this experience at UW.
Our students are passionate about social justice. They are committed to the topics they study in their GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies courses beyond the classroom. Let me give a few examples of what this has meant during their time at UW.
We have an internship course in GWS that students typically complete as second semester seniors. This concern with social justice led Kayla Wasserman to intern at Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin updating a family resource and communication guide. Ava Gurman interned at the Rape Crisis Center facilitating discussions on healthy relationships and consent; and Ariana King interned at the Women’s Medical Fund working on communications, fundraising, and educational events. Many other students put themselves through college by working as House fellows in the residence halls, with Emergency food system (FoodShare), Planned Parenthood, McBurney Disability Resource Center, and in State Assembly/Senate offices and with Senator Tammy Baldwin.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of interests our students will take into the world as they leave our department. We have also had some amazing senior theses like Lariisa Stewart’s research on disability accessibility at UW-Madison.
Our graduating students have pursued GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies in a global context and studied abroad in South Africa, India, Ireland, Spain and the UK to name just a few countries.
Last summer Andrew Briceno studied abroad in Copenhagen and Stockholm learning about Trash Culture and Sex Work.
Many GWS and LGBTQ+ Studies students have worked extremely hard as research assistants on campus doing important extracurricular work, gaining new technical skills, and often publishing their results. We currently have students working in many different areas. Aastha Pandey conducted research in human oncology and Olivia Bee on the blood/brain barrier of group B strep.
Many of our students are going for further graduate study at places like Columbia University and University of Chicago. Several students will start nursing school in the summer and several more are applying to medical and law school.
As you transition from students to professionals, you might also consider making the transition from student to ambassador and supporter of our department and programs, as so many have done before you. This support may be financial, or you might consider speaking at one of our pizza lunches, or encouraging a student new to UW to take the plunge into their first GWS course. Stay in touch with us and keep us informed about the many ways you pay it forward with what you learned here at UW.
We hope you will carry these Wisconsin Experience values of empathy and humility, relentless curiosity, intellectual confidence and purposeful action with you as you leave us. We are confident that we have given you the skills and the resilience with which to take on the many challenges we face, especially at this time. So, after you have basked in the glow of success and after you have finished your graduation celebrations, remember that we have great expectations for you. We know we have prepared you well. The world now awaits you, so show them what you’ve got!!!