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At 2023 UW–Madison Winter Commencement, notable grads abound

December 11, 2023 By Doug Erickson

This Sunday, hundreds of winter graduates will earn degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Each has an impressive story to tell of achievement and perseverance. Here are just a few of the remarkable tales behind the names you’ll hear at the Kohl Center. For more details on the ceremony, visit

He promotes post-high school education planning 

Jonathan Bryan

As the son of a special education teacher, Jonathan Bryan grew up seeing the value in promoting educational access. As a UW–Madison student, he joined with three other students to start “Bridging Wisconsin,” a project that connects underrepresented students with undergraduate mentors to discuss post-high school graduation planning, with an emphasis on higher education. Aided by a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant, the group first travelled to Oneida Nation Middle and High Schools near Green Bay and spent a week performing STEM experiments with students and sharing their own paths to higher education. They later expanded to Milwaukee, working with rising high school seniors at the Hmong American Peace Academy. “Hearing about the interests and future plans of adolescent scholars motivates me to continue connecting with younger generations,” says Bryan, of Appleton, Wisconsin. He is earning a degree with three majors (neurobiology, psychology, and molecular & cell biology) and hopes to become a physician.

She’s the top server in Wisconsin volleyball history

A woman in a volleyball uniform hits a ball.

Izzy Ashburn (#11) sets the ball in a match against TCU in 2022. Photo: Taylor Wolfram

In September, setter Izzy Ashburn entered the UW record books as the top server in Wisconsin volleyball history. During a game with Marquette University, she surpassed the school’s all-time mark of 166 service aces held by Margie Kaminski. Ashburn, of Dayton, Minnesota, will graduate this winter with a master’s degree in business analytics. Ideally, she won’t be at the Kohl Center. The same day, the NCAA Women’s Volleyball championship game will be played in Tampa, Florida. The Badgers hope to be there. Not surprisingly, Ashburn says her favorite volleyball memory (so far) was the five-set national championship win over Nebraska in 2021. Another current player, Sydney Reed, a member of the 2021 championship team from Glenelg, Maryland, also graduates this winter. (Update: The Badgers’ season came to an end Dec. 14 with a loss to the Texas Longhorns. Still, Final Four!)

Healthcare career focuses on equity for all

Alex Dudek

Throughout much of the recent pandemic, Alex Dudek worked as a hospital nurse in a trauma and COVID-19 intensive care unit, a career inspired by work as an EMT. Currently, Dudek is a public health nurse in sexual and reproductive health with Public Health Madison & Dane County. As an undergraduate at UW–Madison, Dudek conducted HIV research as part of the Nurse Honors Program. At winter commencement, Dudek will be earning a master’s degree in public health, a pursuit driven by an interest in studying epidemiology and the impact of the environment on the health of individuals and communities. “I identify as queer and nonbinary trans, so I know personally how important it is to have healthcare professionals who understand the needs of 2SLGBTQ+ communities,” Dudek says. “I hope to continue building trust with the communities we serve in order to improve sexual and reproductive health equity.”

Pandemic isolation sparks reactivation of student group

Thamer Alsadun

To attend UW–Madison, Thamer Alsadun traveled 7,000 miles, from one capital city (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) to another (Madison, Wisconsin). Arriving during the pandemic, Alsadun found himself socially isolated. He had only one in-person class his first semester on campus, a twice-a-week analytical chemistry lab. The experience led him to reactivate the Saudi Student Association, which had fallen dormant. “I think it has really helped bring the Saudi community on campus closer together,” he says. “We all come from the same place and understand each other.” This past September, nearly 200 people attended the Saudi National Day celebration on campus sponsored by the association — an outcome Alsadun said warms his heart. Alsadun is earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and will be returning to his home country after graduation to work for Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia.

She started a running club for UW Law students

Emma Hawley

During her first year in law school, Emma Hawley often left classes wanting to discuss with other students the complicated legal concepts she’d just learned. She also loves to run. The result: The UW Law Run Club. “As new law students, we found running to be an important part of our mental and physical health,” says Hawley, a founder of the club. “It was great to be able to connect with other fellow students outside the classroom, in what can be, at times, an isolating field of study.” Advocating for mental health has been an especially important part of Hawley’s life since losing a close family member to suicide several years ago. While in law school, Hawley, of Green Bay, Wisconsin, was co-president of the Law Student Wellness Coalition and served on the executive board of the Student Bar Association. Post-graduation, she will be moving to San Diego to begin work as a patent and intellectual property attorney.

He was an NBA star, just like Michael Finley

Devin Harris when he played for the Badgers.

Devin Harris helped the Badgers win three Big Ten titles — 2002 and 2003 regular season and 2004 Big Ten Tournament — before turning pro his junior year. He left UW–Madison before earning his degree but has now rectified that nearly 20 years later. He plans to be at the Kohl Center Sunday to receive his bachelor’s degree in history. Now 40 years old, Harris played 1,049 games in the NBA in a career that spanned 15 years. For one season, he played alongside winter commencement speaker Michael Finley as a Dallas Maverick. The two remain close. “For (Michael) to be the commencement speaker at my graduation is a very, very cool moment,” Harris told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “I think I’m more excited about that than actually walking across the stage.”


His research aids the Hmong community

Magic Vang

The son of Hmong refugees, Magic Vang sought a way to combine his research interests with a project that would benefit the Hmong community. It led him to join an effort at UW’s Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Disease, where entomology professor Susan Paskewitz and scientist Xia Lee lead a project to better understand Hmong knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors related to ticks and tick-borne illnesses. Aided by a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant, Vang and his team traveled to Hmong community events and surveyed more than 200 community members. The data they collected will be used to create outreach materials in the Hmong language that increase awareness of ticks and tick-borne diseases. Vang is graduating with a degree in global health and hopes to pursue a graduate education. Read more about Vang here.

He’ll study in China through prestigious scholarship

Jinwan Park

Jinwan Park was recently named a Schwarzman Scholar, an esteemed honor that comes with full tuition for a one-year master’s degree program at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. The scholarship, inspired by the Rhodes Scholarship, seeks to “prepare the next generation of global leaders for the challenges of the 21st century and beyond.” Park was among 150 students selected from a pool of more than 4,000 candidates. The winners represent 43 countries and 114 universities. Park is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a certificate in East Asian studies. Read more about his prestigious honor here.

Her area of expertise is close to a Wisconsinite’s heart

Kaitlin Buterbaugh

Nothing says “Wisconsin” like a dairy cow, and few people know the state’s official domestic animal better than Kaitlin Buterbaugh. This past summer, the dairy science major undertook a research project on the longevity of dairy cattle, visiting 56 commercial dairy farms across Wisconsin. (Yes, 56!) Buterbaugh, of Hampshire, Illinois, says she always had an interest in health and science, later realizing a passion for caring for animals. She originally planned on attending veterinary school but now has decided to pursue a master’s degree in dairy science at UW–Madison to continue the research she started this past summer. She hopes to obtain a position in the dairy industry. Her current interest lies in calf and heifer management.

She’s got an artistic approach to science (and vice versa)

Madisson Delebeck

Double majors come in all combos; Madisson Delebeck put together one of the more unusual ones, pairing art with biochemistry (and a certificate in classical studies). “I want to show people that they don’t have to settle for one field of study, even if their goals are across multiple, incredibly different, fields,” says Delebeck, of Antigo, Wisconsin. Post-graduation, Delebeck will be working in a lab for Eurofins Scientific Inc. in Madison. But the arts will remain a constant in her life — she paints almost daily. Read more about Delebeck’s merging of art and science in this Q&A.

Student commencement speaker hopes to uplift others

Jnae Thompson stands for a portrait photo.

Jnae Thompson

Winter commencement student speaker Jnae Thompson came to UW–Madison with a plan. But after two years, she realized her freshman-year goals no longer fit the person she was becoming. She took on the hard work of reimagining her future and herself, but she looks back with no regrets. Now, Thompson believes her own story might help others. Read the full story here.