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Commencement: Graduates enjoyed ‘endless possibilities’

May 10, 2024 By Chris Barncard

It may be a short trip across a stage — with a brief pause to shake a few hands — but there’s no shortcut to a graduate or professional degree. Just ask the hundreds of University of Wisconsin–Madison students who celebrated the end of their long academic journeys on Friday, May 10. 

Maria Hill, whose ride to Madison from home in Berkeley, Illinois, as an undergraduate in 2016 wasn’t even 150 miles, was setting out on an eight-year path. She planned (and earned in 2020) a bachelor’s degree in biology, followed by her brand-new doctorate in pharmacy, conferred before an appreciative crowd at the Kohl Center. 

“I was one of the lucky ones. I knew what I wanted to do here from day one,” said Hill, who will soon begin a residency at Aurora St. Luke’s Medical Center in Milwaukee. “But there are just endless possibilities on this campus.” 

And endless ways to carry them back out into the world. 

“What you learn here, you take with you,” Hill said. “It’s the Wisconsin Idea. I’m looking forward to putting what I’ve learned to use to help people, to make their lives better. And I know no matter where I go, I’ll find other Badgers with the same idea.” 

Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin pointed to recent work in UW–Madison labs influencing lives beyond the boundaries of campus — including 3-D printing brain tissue that will help scientists studying Down syndrome or Alzheimer’s, new methods for forecasting dangerous algae blooms in lakes, and innovative ways for people to learn rarely taught languages and better understand others. 

Participating in and advancing that kind of scholarship is a key step toward the degrees conferred Friday, credentials that tell the world their bearers are bona fide members of and contributors to their fields. Being bona fide, however, comes with responsibilities. 

“There is also a deeper meaning. Literally translated, bona fides means ‘good faith,’” Mnookin told the grads. “And good faith is something beyond a credential. It’s a way to be in the world. It’s about honesty, integrity, transparency, authenticity. So, while your credentials are sterling, your good faith is golden.” 

To Reverend Dr. Alexander Gee Jr., who received an honorary degree at Friday’s ceremony, committing to good-faith practice with UW–Madison credentials is a family value. His mother moved to Madison in 1970 to earn a UW–Madison degree and find a better life for her children, whom she was raising on her own. Over the intervening years, her son joined her in the former goal and continues the latter — on behalf of a very extended family. 

Founder of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development and senior pastor of Madison’s Fountain of Life Covenant Church, Gee has worked for 35 years to advocate for Madison’s Black community and address racial disparities.


A 1985 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Afro-American studies and a former UW–Madison employee, Gee has made the university an integral part of his work and pushed it to remain an equal partner with the people of Madison. In the last decade, his Justified Anger Coalition has joined with UW–Madison professors to educate thousands of people about African American history in a series of highly successful community classes called “Black History for a New Day.” 

“By acknowledging my contributions, UW is essentially celebrating its own founding principles,” Gee said Friday. “Principles that prioritize collaboration between the university and the community, foster outreach and educational programs addressing societal needs, and promote unity and societal betterment.” 

Gee’s honorary doctor of humane letters makes the 14th UW–Madison degree in his family, though — like Hill — he counts himself a fortunate member of a much larger group. 

“Some of the most important people who have touched my life and shaped my Wisconsin Idea-inspired work were fellow Badgers,” said Gee. “The camaraderie and intellectual exchange and cultural cohesion I experienced during my time here in the ’80s were invaluable, shaping my perspective and fueling my passion for service, innovation and social impact.” 

Remember the opportunities the UW–Madison experience affords, Gee told his new fellow alums, and use them to build bridges between academia and the wider communities they join farther down the road. 

“Let us heed the voices of those we serve, for the Wisconsin Idea is a reciprocal concept, an exchange of ideas, insights, and aspirations,” Gee said. “Let us leave an indelible imprint on our communities and on the world at large. And please, let us always remember that, in the spirit of this great idea, that this is what Badgers do.” 

While it was an evening of celebration, Mnookin asked the graduates to remember those who helped them along the way but could not be present to share in their triumph — and also acknowledged the weight of world events. 

“Many in our campus community are also feeling heartbroken over the devastating destruction, injustice, and loss of life in Israel and Gaza,” Mnookin said. “Some of you have had to navigate this final year of your degree amid anguishing worry about friends and relatives there. Please know that you are not alone in your pain and grief at this incredibly difficult time.”

The ceremony, attended by nearly 5,000 people, capped the student careers of approximately 1,000 students who earned doctoral and professional degrees. Altogether, nearly 8,600 students will celebrate bachelor’s and graduate degrees this weekend.

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