Spring 2020 L&S Honors Commencement

Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.


Congratulations to the College of Letters & Science Honors Program graduates!

On this page, you will find commencement remarks from L&S Dean Eric Wilcots and L&S Honors Program Faculty Director Sabine Gross as well as student speaker Claire Evensen. You can also view pictures of Honors events during students’ first years on campus, a few pieces of trivia, and Honors memories and reflections from the graduating class. Links to our commencement program and other campus commencement activities can be found in the website menu and at the bottom of this page.

L&S Dean Eric Wilcots

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Read remarks from L&S Dean Eric Wilcots

I want to start by thanking Sabine Gross, Sara Stephenson, and Matt Kohlstedt, our faculty and staff colleagues who make the L&S Honors program so special. It is truly a pleasure to work with them.

This is, of course, not the commencement celebration we all anticipated.  Yet, while our necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic requires this virtual celebration, please do not let that take anything away from the truly remarkable accomplishments of our Honors graduates. Today we celebrate this university’s best and brightest students. I don’t mean to embarrass all of you, but having served as a faculty mentor for several Honors students over the years, I know firsthand that you are curious, eager, determined, focused, and above all—willing to think out of the box. That is what it takes to achieve great things and fulfill big dreams, and our Honors students go on to do just that.

So, in a very personal way, it is a joy to congratulate you today. I hope you are able to share this moment of celebration with friends and family, even if that means doing so remotely. Graduates, your journey to this point could not have happened without the love and support of your family and friends. Please let them know how much that has meant to you.

Graduates, let me ask you to think back to the moment you joined the Honors program as freshmen. You were looking for a challenge. You were prepared to pursue excellence. During your time here, each of you has discovered and nurtured what one recent graduate of the Honors program called “a perpetually-learning mindset.” I like to call it a “lifelong love of learning.” In pushing yourselves to take the harder course, run the complex experiment, take on the long-term research project, and rise to the challenge of a senior Honors thesis, you have developed and nurtured a hunger for knowledge.

You have been part of a tradition of excellence: L&S Honors was officially launched in 1960 and today serves approximately 1,200 students per year; more than 800 students apply as incoming freshmen; and our Honors students regularly receive the nation’s highest accolades and awards.

I hope, and I believe, that your decision to join the L&S Honors program will count as one of the great decisions of your life.

The Honors program has encouraged you to be passionate about acquiring knowledge on issues close to your heart, as well as important ones in the world at large. You have gained unique skills, including: critical thinking (or, as we call it at UW-Madison, “sifting and winnowing”); communication—across cultures and in different languages; problem-solving, whether in the lab or in a humanities seminar; and the ability and willingness to open your mind to different perspectives and points of view.

In no small measure, I am sure that your experience as an Honors student helped ignite a passion for learning that will continue throughout your lifetime. If so, then you will leave here with the greatest gift of all: a joyful curiosity that will power all your endeavors and decisions from this day forward.

The very meaning of the word “commencement” signifies a beginning. You are beginning the next chapter of your lives, as you go forth from UW-Madison into a very uncertain world. There are many more questions than there are answers about our world and how we interact with each other in the months and years ahead. In that uncertainty we will need, more than ever, leaders who understand critical thinking, who can communicate across cultures, and who have a passion for learning. We will need you, our Honors graduates.

We are incredibly proud of you.  We are grateful for the chance to know and teach you. You have shown resilience to complete a challenging course of study. Take that resilience, your spirit, your knowledge and wisdom as you go forth as Badgers into the world.

Again, everyone: thank you for the opportunity to celebrate with you. Congratulations and ON, WISCONSIN!

L&S Honors Program Faculty Director Sabine Gross

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Read additional remarks from L&S Honors Faculty Director Sabine Gross

Dear Honors graduates –

Let me add a few remarks to my video congratulations, as you think ahead and reflect on your time at the UW-Madison. While the L&S Honors Program offers opportunities and invites you to take up challenges, none of us could have foreseen the unanticipated challenges that marked your final semester: you have done splendidly under very difficult circumstances. Honors students are characterized by their willingness to embrace challenges, and we know you will bring that willingness to everything you set out to do.

While “graduation” sounds like a form of closure – the completion of your degree and your work here – “commencement” marks a beginning. You’ll be shaping your own future, but also that of your larger surroundings, perhaps of the world, in years to come. You are taking your Honors degree into that world with you, and there are two sides to that degree, two meanings of the term “honor.” On the one hand, Honors is conferred on you publicly and officially, on your transcript: it is an external validation and acknowledgment of your outstanding work and ability to challenge yourself. But “honor” does not only refer to the outward respect and esteem from others that you have earned through high achievement. It is also an inner and personal commitment independent of public validation. A person who has honor has integrity, can be trusted to do things right, and to do the right thing. Being honorable means following that moral compass independently of external rewards or praise (although they may follow).

For the Honors Program, both meanings of “honor” are important. We promised you opportunities that added up to a rich, fulfilling educational experience and we expected you to develop that inner yardstick of integrity in everything that you do – in your intellectual and civic engagement, in taking on leadership roles to support others and make the world better.

For us in the Honors Program, it has been a pleasure and a privilege to watch you progress through your studies at this university and in the Honors Program. We are proud of you, especially after a final semester marked by a collective Covid-19 response that brought so much adjustment and uncertainty. We think of you and your family on graduation weekend and we thank all those who supported you on your educational journey.  We hope you will continue feeling connected to the Honors Program; we’re looking forward to hearing from you in the future; we wish you success and happiness. On, Wisconsin!

Comprehensive Honors Graduate and Marshall Scholarship Recipient Claire Evensen

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Read remarks from Claire Evensen

Hi, Class of 2020! I was honored to be asked to speak to you all today. My name is Claire Evensen, and I’m finishing up an Honors degree in biochemistry and applied math. I know this is not quite the ending we envisioned for our time at UW–Madison, but I hope you are finding ways to celebrate with your families, roommates, dogs, cats, and any other loved ones that can congratulate you on this major accomplishment.

Although this week is when we’re recognized for earning our degrees, in reality we’ve been earning them week by week and day by day for the past four years. By pursuing an Honors Program, we challenged ourselves to stretch our abilities, to find the willingness to fail sometimes, and to develop creativity as a writer, scientist, artist, and thinker. Through it all, we’ve found the things we love, we’ve probably found a couple of things we hate, and, most importantly, we’ve found that we don’t need to be defined by a singular passion or goal.

A liberal arts education and this Honors Program supports us throughout that exact process; it recognizes that we have a diverse range of interests and encourages us to pursue all of them. You wouldn’t know it from my degree or my career plans, but the humanities have been a central part of my experience at UW. I have been a member of the clarinet studio and Wind Ensemble, and had the opportunity to take classes ranging from 20th century Indian culture, to the rise of Internet infrastructure disparities, to African storytelling traditions. Some of these classes are mainstays of a UW liberal arts education and connect generations of Badgers; my mom took that same African storytelling course!

Unfortunately, liberal arts educations are facing challenges right now as some universities shift their focus towards preparing students for particular career paths. I think this kind of shift ignores one of the most important aspects of a college education: exploration and flexibility. If there was ever a prime time to support the love of learning, college is it; when else will an aspiring programmer have the chance to read a wide range of Asian American literature, or a future psychologist have the chance to take a class on climate change? Once we have moved on from UW, we will have to work much harder to find the same diverse learning opportunities, so a liberal arts education can quite literally be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

In a time when universities are shrinking or eliminating humanities departments, it is important that leaders in STEM make a conscious effort to fight this trend by drawing attention to the very concrete ways in which the sciences and the humanities strengthen one another. This is an issue I’m personally very passionate about; I am a big proponent of STEAM, the effort to add the Arts into traditional STEM initiatives. Work in this area is exciting; recently, I’ve seen articles on how we can use mathematics to model the origins and diversification of human language, and how linguistics are an essential tool for designing AI machine learning programs. As we go forward into our careers, I hope we all remain advocates for the aspects of liberal arts we are most invested in, so future students are afforded the same opportunities that we were.

Now that we’re at the end of our time together, it’s only natural to look back — we’ve gotten through O chem, so many walks up Bascom Hill, all-nighters writing midterm papers, and now, thanks to Zoom, getting acquainted with all of our professors’ and classmates’ homes. I know that we will all get through this uncertain transition together, and I’m excited to hear about where your Honors degree takes you in the future! From my family to yours — congratulations, Class of 2020!