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Convocation 2023: Thousands of new students begin their ‘Wisconsin Experience’

September 5, 2023 By Doug Erickson
Thousands of people, most wearing red, some wearing academic robes, fill an arena. They're each waving one hand in the air as they sway in unison singing Varsity.

Faculty, staff and students sway together as they sing “Varsity” during New Student Convocation, a Wisconsin Welcome event held at the Kohl Center on Sept. 5. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin welcomed thousands of new Badgers to the University of Wisconsin–Madison during New Student Convocation on Tuesday, telling them that while the size of the freshman class is, by design, a little smaller than recent record-breaking years, they still have a lot to brag about.

“So, we have a smaller class, but we also had a record number of applicants,” Mnookin said, “which means you got in in what may be the most competitive year in our entire history. Congratulations!”

Chancellor Mnookin speaks to the crowd from a podium. She's wearing academic robes.

Mnookin shared with the incoming class, “You got in in what may be the most competitive year in our entire history. Congratulations!” Photo: Althea Dotzour

Chancellor Mnookin stands on stage wearing academic robes. She's taking a selfie with the thousands of people behind her filling the Kohl Center arena.

Mnookin takes a selfie with the crowd. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Convocation is UW–Madison’s formal welcome ceremony for all new freshmen and transfer students. For thousands of incoming students, the event at the Kohl Center is their entry into higher education and the beginning of their academic experience at UW–Madison.

Bucky Badger poses with a large group of students who lean in to fill the frame.

UW mascot Bucky Badger poses for a photo with first-year students. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Mnookin shared that this year’s freshman class is expected to be around 8,000 students. (An official count comes later in September.)  Another 1,000 or so transfer students also are joining campus this fall. Total attendance at convocation was 6,347.

Provost Charles Isbell told the students it was an exciting day for him, too — he started Aug. 1.

A man wearing academic robes speaks from a lectern.

Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Charles Isbell spoke to new students, sharing that this will be his first semester at UW as well. Photo: Althea Dotzour

“You’re the first class I get to welcome, and I’ll be learning about UW–Madison along with you,” he said.

Mnookin began her remarks by addressing the violent attack on a UW student off campus early Sunday morning.

“First and foremost, we are holding the student and her family in our hearts at this terrible moment, and I hope that you will as well,” Mnookin said. “This is certainly not the way we hoped to begin this new school year, and I know that so many of us in this room — and your parents and families — are feeling anger and grief and anxiety.”

Mnookin said many may be wondering if they can feel safe at UW–Madison.

“The answer is, mostly, yes, Madison is generally quite a safe city. But no place is completely safe, including Madison. And I so wish it were otherwise,” Mnookin said. “More than anything, I want you to know that you are part of a strong Badger community. We want to help and support and look out for one another, and I ask each of you to do the same.”

Later in her remarks, Mnookin introduced students to the Wisconsin Idea — the notion that UW–Madison exists to serve the public by sharing its knowledge and innovations.

“We don’t sit on the sidelines here at UW,” she said. “We don’t wait for someone else to step up and make things better. And you don’t either — that’s why we selected you to be part of this great class.”

LaVar Charleston, the university’s chief diversity officer, said he understands how it feels to be that new kid on the block at UW–Madison — he earned two degrees from the university. Charleston told students the university values them in many different ways.

LaVar Charleston, wearing academic robes, stands at a lectern. He's holding one hand to his ear and smiling as he listens to the crowd.

Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion LaVar Charleston listens for an audience response. He emphasized the importance of students showing up as their authentic selves. Photo: Althea Dotzour

“Students are leaders, advocates, researchers and thought partners,” Charleston said. “We endeavor to support you in all aspects of your identities and encourage you to show up as your authentic selves because we understand that community — one that is strong, supportive and diverse — is at the center of a sound undergraduate education.”

A man speaks from the lectern. He is wearing academic robes.

Recent graduate Joel Baraka spoke about building resilience and the importance of asking for help when needed. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Recent civil engineering graduate Joel Baraka provided the student perspective, recounting how difficult it can be — even amid the excitement of college life — to be away from family and friends. He urged students to learn to ask for help early on.

“The moment you realize that you are struggling, do not wait,” Baraka said. “Ask for help. We all struggle, and once in a while, we all can use some help.”

A woman wearing academic robes speaks from a lectern.

Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor encouraged students to be curious, proud and real. “This is your time to really figure out who you are and who you want to be and to enjoy the journey.” Photo: Althea Dotzour

Lori Reesor, vice chancellor for student affairs, encouraged students to be real, be proud and be curious.

“The time you will share together, whether in the classroom or in community, will offer many chances to dig deeper, to share your perspectives and to listen to others,” she said. “Being curious is how we start to make a positive change in our world.”

A group of four students in a crowd close their eyes, hold one hand to their hearts and sing along to a song.

From right to left, Lauren Jentsch and Fiona Anton dance along as the UW Marching Band plays “Hey Baby.” Photo: Althea Dotzour

The Marching Band, wearing in bright blue T-shirts, plays for the crowd.

UW Marching Band members get the crowd on its feet. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Two women wearing red shirts laugh as they dance together on the floor of the arena.

From left to right, Nicky Thompson and Betty Quasius dance together as the UW Marching Band plays. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Among the new students on campus is freshman Arthur Ruiz of Little Canada, Minnesota, who said in an interview that he’s excited to find communities that he can be a part of — people who are similar to him and also people who have different perspectives.

“I want to understand more about myself and other groups of people,” he said.

Freshman Aaliyah Golden-Whitehead of Kenosha said she’s most looking forward to the learning opportunities at UW–Madison.

“It may sound a little nerdy, but education is why I’m going to college, so I’m excited for it,” she said.

Golden–Whitehead said she was drawn to UW–Madison because of its botany major. She excels at playing the double bass and electric bass and received her high school’s National School Orchestra Award.

She’s one of hundreds of freshmen and new transfer students from Wisconsin who will have their college costs largely covered by Bucky’s Pell Pathway, a route to a debt-free education announced by Chancellor Mnookin in February. The program covers not just tuition but also housing, food, books and most other educational costs.

A woman wearing academic robes speaks from a lectern.

Professor Annie Jones shared a Native Nations welcome. She said, “In my journey toward becoming a Badger, I’ve learned that while academic, athletic and other achievements are certainly important, becoming a Badger may have more to do with developing a love for this place, caring for one another and respecting the diverse perspectives that we all bring to the campus community.” Photo: Althea Dotzour

Just prior to convocation, new students enjoyed a lunch hosted by the chancellor. Inside the Kohl Center, the UW Marching Band with director Corey Pompey warmed up the crowd. Annie Jones, an enrolled member of the Menominee Nation and a professor with UW–Madison’s Division of Extension, gave the First Nations welcome.

Chancellor Mnookin stands in the lobby of the Kohl Center handing out books to students.

Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin distributes complimentary copies of this year’s Go Big Read book, “How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion” following convocation. Photo: Althea Dotzour

As students exited the Kohl Center, they received a free copy of the book selected for this year’s Go Big Read: “How Minds Change” by David McRaney. The book explores the science of belief, opinion and persuasion. Noting the value of academic freedom and freedom of speech, Mnookin said she hopes the community discussion around the book will help people better engage across their differences.

“There’s no doubt that freedom of speech is a heck of a lot easier to believe in when you agree with the speaker,” she said, “but the truth is, it’s probably most important when you don’t.”

Convocation is part of Wisconsin Welcome, a multi-week, new-student celebration sponsored by the Center for the First-Year Experience and the Office of the Chancellor.