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Meet Gracie Nelson, student speaker for 2024 spring commencement

April 24, 2024 By Doug Erickson
Portrait photo of Gracie Nelson

Gracie Nelson, senior class president and student speaker for the 2024 spring commencement, will earn a bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and gender and women’s studies and honors through the College of Letters & Science. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Gracie Nelson’s first day at the University of Wisconsin–Madison was memorable for its uncertainty. It was the fall of 2020 — deep into the COVID-19 pandemic — and she was a newly arrived freshman from Seattle. Everyone was fully masked, and all her classes would be virtual.

Amid this instability, a couple of things helped Nelson find her footing. First, she met her roommate, Sydney Pham, of Little Canada, Minnesota.

“I got so lucky,” says Nelson, who will be the student speaker for spring commencement at Camp Randall Stadium on May 11. “We became best friends. I don’t think I would have survived freshman year without her because I felt very isolated at times.”

Secondly, Nelson pushed herself to get involved in campus activities right away despite COVID-19. She wanted to be part of the pandemic-related decisions being made across campus, so she applied to and was chosen for the Dean of Students Advisory Board. It would turn out to be a long-term association. She chaired the 17-member committee this academic year.

As the pandemic began to ease, Nelson became ever busier.

“I think not being able to do much that first year was one of the reasons that I became uber involved on campus after that,” Nelson says. “And I think it led to a greater level of appreciation for everything I have been able to do.”

This past year, Nelson has served in the elected role of senior class president. She and Megan Keefe, vice president, are only the fifth all-female duo to lead the Senior Class Office since 1886.

As class president, Nelson will offer remarks at commencement on behalf of her fellow graduates. She will be earning a bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and gender and women’s studies and honors through the College of Letters & Science. Post-graduation, she plans to attend law school.

Nelson says she sought the role of senior class president primarily because she wanted to find ways to celebrate her fellow classmates — and make sure they had a fun year. To that end, the Senior Class Office threw a prom April 13 to give UW seniors the experience most of them missed in high school due the pandemic. It was a huge success, with more than 1,000 students in attendance.

Nelson believes every individual can contribute to shaping the campus environment and that important changes can start in very small ways — sentiments she intends to touch on in her commencement speech. She says her own journey reflects the potential ripple effects of a seemingly small gesture.

Nelson, who is gay, had joined a sorority early on at UW but initially struggled to feel a sense of belonging.

“There were a lot of things about Greek life that made it challenging for students like me,” Nelson says. “I had reached a real crossroads. Do I leave this space, or do I stay and try to make it better?”

Nelson opted for the latter, asking the sorority’s president to convene a meeting of all sorority sisters — a group of nearly 200.

“I gave a 30-minute presentation on why being queer is difficult in Greek life and how they could contribute to making it better and safer,” Nelson says. “I was shaking the whole time, because only my inner circle of friends knew I was gay.”

Nelson included in her presentation tangible examples of how to be more inclusive.

“I realized then, as cliché as it sounds, that all it takes is one person to make a difference towards greater acceptance and inclusivity in their immediate surroundings.”

Nelson went on to lead the sorority’s diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for a year and was invited by other sororities to give the presentation.

“UW has become my dream school,” Nelson says, “and I think a large part of that is because I really dedicated myself to being my full authentic self in every space I entered and because I truly believe in the power of each person to make a difference.”

During her time at UW, Nelson also chaired the grant allocation committee for the university’s student government, studied abroad in Italy and interned in public affairs with the U.S. Department of Justice.

In her commencement speech, Nelson aims to celebrate the accomplishments of her fellow classmates while underscoring the significance of each individual’s contribution to the campus community.

“I want to emphasize the transformative potential in authentic self-expression and in an unwavering commitment to fostering positive change,” she says. “And I want to impart that every person sitting there is remarkable and worth celebrating, whether your strength was winning a million awards or being someone’s best friend. It all has value.”

As for being paired with roomie Sydney Pham on Day One, it did indeed prove fateful. They are still best friends and roommates and will be graduating together on May 11.