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‘Look at us now:’ Graduates reclaim Kohl Center traditions for 2021 winter commencement

December 19, 2021 By Doug Erickson

MADISON — From the floor of the Kohl Center Sunday, UW–Madison winter graduate Martha Kowalski recounted some of the typical obstacles she and her fellow classmates overcame — caffeine-fueled all-nighters, blue books turned in at the last minute, the trudge up Bascom Hill in a snowstorm.

Then she got to the real challenge — a pandemic that threw everything it had at students.

Photo: Martha Kowalski

Martha Kowalski

“It was tough, but we were stronger than it,” said Kowalski, of suburban Chicago, an economics and Spanish double-major who earned comprehensive honors in both. “Because look at us now — the caps and gowns, the degrees and diplomas. This is ours. We earned it. We got here.”

Sunday’s winter commencement ceremony marked a sweet return to an in-person celebration at the Kohl Center following a one year pause and a virtual winter commencement in December of 2020 due to COVID-19. It was the first commencement to include family and friends since two years ago in December 2019.

“I believe everyone’s journey at the University of Wisconsin–Madison has been a rollercoaster of emotions, and today, all those emotions and tears are justified,” student speaker Jai Khanna told his fellow graduates from the stage.

Just over 1,800 doctoral, professional, master’s, and bachelor’s students earned degrees Sunday. About 1,240 of them took part in the ceremony at the Kohl Center. Total attendance, including graduates, was 5,954. The ceremony was livestreamed so that friends and family from around the world could join in.

Adding to the excitement: The Badger volleyball team won its first national championship the night before. The victory earned shout-outs from the stage.

“It was an amazing game for an amazing group of women,” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said to loud cheers.

Tyler Johnston

Winter graduate Tyler Johnston was among those who got to walk across the Kohl Center stage Sunday. In an interview, he called his time at UW–Madison life-changing. A native of Leon, Iowa, he attended Iowa State University after high school but was academically dismissed as a junior.

“I really wasn’t disciplined or, honestly, ready to be in that environment,” he said.

After several years in the workforce, Johnston enrolled at UW–Madison in 2019 through Badger Ready, a transitional program for adults with prior credits who’ve been out of school for a while. Bucky’s Tuition Promise made his return financially feasible. Sunday, he earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science with a 3.8 GPA.

“Most people don’t get a second chance, so I wanted to make the most of it,” he said. “I’ll be forever grateful to Badger Ready and Bucky’s Tuition Promise for giving me this opportunity to rewrite my story.”

Keynote speaker Manu Raju, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent, described how he decided, as a UW–Madison freshman, to take a chance and try something new as a sports reporter for The Badger Herald. It was a risk worth taking, he said, just like the bold decision his parents made to immigrate to the U.S. from India.

Yet Raju, who earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from UW–Madison in 2002, cautioned that risks won’t always lead to rewards, at least not ones that are always readily apparent. He said his own career has been filled with its fair share of disappointments.

“As someone who has been humbled by having my hopes dashed repeatedly, I know it takes a great deal of courage to view our mishaps as bellows that can nourish, rather than extinguish, the embers of our ambition,” he told graduates. “But that courage to continue is precisely what characterizes the University of Wisconsin and its alums. For as we know, fortitude isn’t always necessarily found in the throes of a fight, but in one’s ability to withstand the wake of defeat.”

Wrapping up some unfinished business, the university recognized two people who were conferred honorary degrees virtually at last year’s winter commencement. V. Craig Jordan, a groundbreaking cancer researcher, accepted the honor in person Sunday. Michael G. Moore, a pioneer in the field of contemporary distance education, watched the ceremony via livestream.

Chancellor Blank told graduates that a college degree is the best investment they will ever make, and that to have finished their degrees while living through a life-threatening pandemic that disrupted every aspect of life was no small thing.

Saad Dagra

Graduate Saad Dagra said coming to UW–Madison was the best decision he’s made so far in his young life, even though it meant studying 7,500 miles from home. His experiences on campus contributed to his decision to return to his native Pakistan to start his career, he said.

“UW–Madison taught me to find meaning in what you do and to be your authentic self, because that’s when you will be at your best,” said Dagra, who double-majored in actuarial science and risk management and insurance. “I’ve realized that what drives my sense of purpose and fulfillment is my home, my family and my childhood friends.”

Dagra returned to Pakistan early last month to finish his final semester remotely while working on a start-up company he hopes to launch soon. Friday, he flew back to Madison with his father to attend commencement in person. It was a 30-hour commute one way — and worth it, he said.

“I’m the first person in my generation to go abroad and graduate from a foreign university,” Dagra said. “It’s a proud moment not just for myself but for my entire family.”