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Back where they belong, undergraduate Badgers rock Camp Randall

May 8, 2021 By Doug Erickson
Four graduates flash the "W" with their hands.

Students flash the “W” before the start of Saturday’s undergraduate ceremony. Photo: Jeff Miller

Thousands of UW–Madison’s graduating seniors made a triumphant return to Camp Randall Saturday for an undergraduate commencement ceremony that was both a jubilant celebration of all they’ve achieved and a defiant response to a devastating year.

Getting to the finish line was not easy — global pandemic, racial strife, mental strain, economic collapse.

“This class has arguably endured the toughest circumstances at UW–Madison since the Greatest Generation,” said Michael Sauer of Hammond, Wisconsin, who graduated with a double major in economics and political science.

It was a momentous day for a special group of graduates, and the blinged-out ceremony reflected that. It had it all, from the emotional (lots of tears), to the explosive (fireworks, literally) to the gloriously unexpected (a Tony-winning Broadway star singing Queen!).

Also, that “Manitowoc Minute” guy — comedian Charlie Berens, Class of 2009 — who sprinkled his video remarks with very Wisconsin-specific advice: “Always remember to tell your loved ones them three magic words: ‘Watch for deer.’”

‘Live from Camp Randall’

Even the weather seemed to realize that the Class of 2021 deserved a break. It was (mostly) gorgeous — mid-50s and often sunny.

“How does it feel to be live from Camp Randall?” senior class president Alec Bukowiec asked, to wild cheers.

As the ceremony proceeded, the graduates “Jumped Around,” sang “Varsity,” and threw their caps in the air. Mainly, though, they left virtual learning behind.

“The energy here today — you can’t get that on a screen,” said Natalie Hameister, a psychology and social welfare double-major from Brookfield, Wisconsin. She decorated her cap with the all-too-familiar “Leave meeting” Zoom icon. Below it, her imaginary cursor hovered over “Join the real world.”

Two ceremonies

There were two ceremonies Saturday, one at noon for undergraduates and one at 4 p.m. for all graduate degree candidates. Together, just over 7,600 students earned degrees — 5,493 undergraduate students, 1,266 master’s degree students and 871 doctoral candidates.

Because of the ongoing pandemic, attendance was limited to graduates only, no guests. Family members, friends and graduates who were unable to attend could watch a livestream of the ceremonies at Many posted tribute videos to their graduates.

Photo showing groups of graduates spread out in the stands and on the field.

Graduates were seated in pods of up to four people, spaced out across the stadium. Photo: Jeff Miller

Attendance at the noon ceremony was just over 5,100 people, a number that includes faculty and administrators and some graduates from other academic terms who opted to participate in spring commencement. Adherence to health and safety protocols was required at both ceremonies, including physical distancing, the wearing of face coverings, and completing COVID-19 testing or vaccination before the event.

You are the champions’

Actor and singer André De Shields, who graduated from UW–Madison in 1970, invoked the pandemic and the police killing of George Floyd in his video keynote address to undergraduates, encouraging graduates to transform the world with their talent. Instead of thinking in terms of “the sky’s the limit,” De Shields provocatively suggested they embrace “the sky is falling.”

Watch De Shields’ address

“Does it mean it is the end of the world? No,” he said. “The sky is falling, and it’s falling into your hands. Now what does that mean? It means that you have to make use of your limitless imagination and allow this old world that is yearning to die, let it die. Use your imagination in helping this new world that is eager to be born to come to life.”

De Shields delivered his remarks in front of a grand piano, and not for nothing. As he neared the end of his remarks, he launched into a rousing rendition — with an accompanist — of Queen’s “We Are The Champions,” substituting “you” for “we.” The crowd roared (and sang along).

Photo of graduates waving the red rally towels.

Students received commemorative rally towels as well as bottles of hand sanitizer and Class of 2021 face masks. Photo: Jeff Miller

Chancellor Rebecca Blank told graduates they are graduating into a world that looks very different than the one they planned for. Just as wars and terrorist attacks shaped prior generations, this pandemic will shape theirs.

Watch Blank’s address

“This year has helped to reveal qualities in each of you that are essential to building a happy and productive life in this new world,” Blank said. “Resilience. Persistence. Flexibility.  Awareness of your own needs, and the needs of others.  And kindness.”

Grit and resilience

At almost every turn Saturday, you could find a graduate who endured and overcame. Like Shehrose Charania, who maintained her studies while caring for two parents sick with COVID-19. And Noor Bontz, a nursing student who treated the first, and subsequent, waves of COVID-19 patients in a Milwaukee intensive care unit.

“UW–Madison has allowed us to thrive and asked us to be a better version of ourselves,” said student commencement speaker Lusayo Mwakatika, whose parents were watching the livestream in Malawi.

Watch Mwakatika’s speech

For some, commencement was a long time coming. Steve Lasco, 59, of Madison, earned a bachelor’s degree Saturday in history, 43 years after starting his university journey.

“I’m very emotional today, as Midwestern men go,” he said.

Lasco left UW–Madison in 1985, short on money and 11 credits shy of a diploma. After a career as a writer, he returned last summer, spurred on by the pandemic and its ample downtime.

“I’ve been through a lot in my life — concussions, loss, struggles,” he said. “I’ve withstood a lot of adversity and had many great experiences as well. Today, I feel a big sense of relief and accomplishment, and I’m awash in gratitude for all the people who helped me get here.”

Photo of Mwakatika and Bucky Badger jumping on the stage

Bucky Badger joins student speaker Lusayo Mwakatika onstage for “Jump Around.” Photo: Bryce Richter

First-generation college student Daisey Velazquez, 26, of Elgin, Illinois, left a career as a chef to earn a bachelor’s degree Saturday in Spanish education. She’ll be teaching in a Milwaukee high school this fall.

“It was a big change, a big decision, but I’m proud today to represent all of my family members in Mexico,” she said.

She spent the last three days embroidering an intricate hummingbird on her cap. For many in Mexico, it is a symbol of strength and an encouragement to follow your dreams, she said.

“This degree opens so many doors,” she said. “I can feel the empowerment from my fellow students and the excitement for the future.”

Graduates wearing Kappa Delta Chi stoles join arms to sing "Varsity"

The ceremony ends with the traditional singing of “Varsity.” Photo: Jeff Miller