Spring 2021 L&S Honors Commencement

The limits on your enlightenment come not from the age you stopped going to school but from the age you stopped being curious.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

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 Max Herteen. 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 at the bottom of this page.

L&S Dean Eric Wilcots

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Read remarks from L&S Dean Eric Wilcots

Congratulations to our Honors graduates!

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 remarks from L&S Honors Faculty Director Sabine Gross

Dear Spring 2021 Honors Graduates –

What an exceptional year to graduate! You deserve to celebrate and be celebrated. Congratulations! You have done splendidly under very difficult circumstances. Honors students tend to embrace challenges, and we know you will bring that willingness to everything you set out to do.

“Graduation” sounds like a form of closure – the completion of your degree and your work here; yet at the same time, “commencement” marks a beginning. You’ll be shaping your own future, but also that of others, in years to come. You are taking your Honors degree into that world with you. 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 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.

Those of you graduating with Honors in the Liberal Arts: you have fulfilled Honors requirements broadly across a range of courses in the College of Letters and Science, in the spirit of the Liberal Arts and taking in all that they encompass: in the Natural, Biological, and Social Sciences, the Arts and Humanities.

Those of you graduating with Honors in the Major: you have done significant scholarly work in your specific discipline or area of knowledge, in-depth and to a demanding standard, including original research and intense and challenging work.

Those of you graduating with Comprehensive Honors: you have combined the breadth of Honors in the Liberal Arts with the intensity of Honors in the Major, fulfilling both requirements. We hope you will wear your Comprehensive Honors medallion with pride – and we hope all of you will wear your Honors Pin with pride and pleasure.

For us in the Honors Program, it has been a joy and a privilege to accompany you as you found and shaped your path at this university and in the Honors program. We are proud of you, especially after this year, a year shaped by a collective response to Covid-19 that brought so much disruption and uncertainty, making continued demands on your flexibility and your ability to adjust. 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, and we wish you success and happiness. Congratulations – and On, Wisconsin!

L&S Honors Graduate Max Herteen

Find comments on Max Herteen from Professor Mario Ortiz-Robles from the UW-Madison English Major Awards 2020. Max was the recipient of the Mary Brabyn Wackman Scholarship.

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Read remarks from Max Herteen.

Hello, everyone, welcome and thank you for joining us virtually. I think I can speak for all of us graduating in thanking our friends, family, faculty, and anyone who has helped us during our Honors experience. We owe you all a lot, and we are especially appreciative of your support during these challenging and unprecedented times.

I also think I can speak for all of us in saying that I wish we could be joined together in person right now. I wish I could be speaking to all of you at Camp Randall, or the Honors Observatory, or anywhere else on our beautiful campus. Unfortunately, the circumstances have not changed enough to make that happen. Fortunately, though, the circumstances have changed, and I think that’s a great sign of progress. We’re on our road to recovering from this pandemic, and hopefully, by next spring, we’ll be able to gather to cheer on our friends in the class of 2022.

I hesitate to wish for a return to “normal life,” though. The most fundamental pillar of our Honors education at UW-Madison is to strive for something better than normal. Our entire Honors experience has built around exceeding expectations, learning about newer and better ways of doing things, and taking on projects and experiences that go beyond “normal” learning. That’s not to brag or say that we are somehow better than anyone else; it’s simply to say that we have high expectations for ourselves and a valuable toolkit for change-making that we’ve acquired as Honors students.

There are elements of “normal” that will be great to return to. I personally can’t wait to see my friends and go to a Badger football game again. “Normal” can give us a lot of comfort. But not everything about “normal” is good. The word itself doesn’t imply anything better than averageness, even mediocrity. Built into “normal” in our world has sadly been some of humanity’s worst legacies: racism, discrimination, and selfishness. Although the pandemic has had some great stories of resilience and positivity, it has also reminded us of the work that needs to be done to make a more inclusive and just world. As Honors students, it’s our responsibility to take our knowledge and care with us, out of the classroom and into the world. I can say with great confidence that few places on earth could prepare us better for the world’s challenges than the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

We are ultimately going to go down as a very memorable class. We’ve lived through a lot already in our lives, especially during our college days. We will go down as the class of the pandemic, the class of protest, and most importantly, the class of progress. All of that is set in stone, and whatever happens next is under our control. I’ve met some of the best people in the world at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I feel very good that we can go out and make a difference in the world. Let’s move the world Forward, together. On Wisconsin.