Winter 2020 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 Julia Miller. 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 other campus commencement activities can be found at the bottom of this page.

L&S Dean Eric Wilcots

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 Faculty Director Sabine Gross

L&S Honors Program Faculty Director Sabine Gross

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

Dear Winter 2020 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 your final year brought: 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 and year shaped by a collective Covid-19 response that brought so much disruption and uncertainty, making continued demands on your flexibility and ability to adjust to unforeseen circumstances. 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. On, Wisconsin!

Sabine Gross

L&S Honors Faculty Director

December 2020

L&S Honors Graduate Julia Miller

L&S Honors Student Julia Miller

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Read additional remarks from L&S Honors Student Speaker Julia Miller

Congratulations class of Fall 2020! My name is Julia Miller, and I am graduating with Comprehensive Honors in Neurobiology and a Certificate in Studio Art. I am truly honored to be here today in celebration and recognition of all we have achieved.

Graduation is often regarded as the end of a University chapter and the beginning of “the rest of our lives”. But really graduation marks a period of transition and reflection – we pause to honor every triumph and pitfall that lead us here, to this moment. We take stock of who we have become.

Like most of us at some point in our lives, I have grappled with the daunting question of who I am. At times I feel pressure to define myself with easily digestible labels to benefit a society that prefers categorizing people. But this is problematic because it implies that everything we are can fit in a tidy box on a shelf when in reality each of us contains the complexity of an entire ecosystem. And, like ecosystems, we are unique, ever-changing, and impossible to neatly catalog.

Many of us saw University as the chance to resist these boundaries and categorizations, to thoroughly explore every facet of ourselves, to identify our limitations and push beyond them into the unknown, and to satisfy our deep curiosity about the world and our place in it. Our time in the Honors Program provided the framework for each of us to chase these goals in a way that was individually meaningful. We were given the space to create an academic experience that reflected and complemented who we were – everything that we were.  Charged with this task, we unapologetically pursued a host of interests from language, music, studio art, and history to scientific research, computer programming, global health initiatives, and mathematics. We immersed ourselves in cultural and spiritual communities and worked to become better educated about the pressing social issues of today.

We became students of life. Each distinct experience shaped the living topography of who we are now, filling in gaps, smoothing edges, fashioning connections – remodeling our ecosystems. We were irrevocably altered, but in ways that could only be described as “harmonizing”.  In diversifying our knowledge we became more balanced versions of ourselves. That is who we are. We are many things, but we are balanced.

And now we stand at the precipice of our future, gazing at the great expanse of unknown framed by global upheaval and uncertainty. We can’t help but wonder, with a degree of apprehension, what waits for us. But remember that you have done this before. You have jumped steadfast into the unknown to forge your own path, and you have come out of it a person of harmony, resilience, and empathy. Just breathe. You will know what to do.