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Meet Jnae Thompson, student speaker for 2023 Winter Commencement

December 6, 2023 By Doug Erickson
Jnae Thompson stands for a portrait photo.

Jnae Thompson, undergraduate speaker at the 2023 Winter Commencement, believes sharing her story might help others. Photo: Althea Dotzour

Jnae Thompson believes everyone has a story. She often thinks of that while walking on campus at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You pass by so many people, and you have no idea what they’re going through,” says Thompson, of Racine, Wisconsin. “You can assume that some of them are going through difficult times, and you want to say something comforting to them.”

That impulse spurred Thompson to apply to be this year’s student speaker for winter commencement, which will take place at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17 at the Kohl Center.

“I want to uplift the people around me,” says Thompson, who was chosen for the role through a competitive process conducted by the senior class officers, in consultation with the Office of the Chancellor. All winter graduates were eligible to apply.

Thompson believes her own story might help others. She entered UW–Madison as a biochemistry major, determined to become an orthopedic surgeon. “I had my entire four-year plan all worked out,” she says.

But after two years, the passion had ebbed for her career choice, and she was struggling to remain engaged in her coursework. She felt called to a different future, one as a community organizer. Her participation in the George Floyd-related protests of 2020 and her work as an organizer for the Madison-based social justice organization Freedom, Inc. contributed to this awakening. She switched her major to African American studies, with a certificate in gender and women’s studies. It was not an easy transition — she had to reimagine her future and herself. But she looks back with no regrets.

“I went through some failures and missteps, but I learned that I am not just my mistakes,” she says. “I’m so much happier now. As difficult as it was, I genuinely would not have changed anything.”

Chanel Sims, Thompson’s best friend since freshman year, says it was difficult to watch Thompson struggle at times.

“Yet, in the end, it’s a good story because, through all this, she found out who Jnae really is, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says Sims, who graduated last year and now lives in Los Angeles.

As for Thompson being the student speaker for winter commencement, “She’s going to really rock it,” Sims says.

Thompson came to UW–Madison after graduating from The Prairie School, an independent college preparatory school near Racine, where she was a three-sport athlete (track, volleyball and basketball) and played violin in school and community orchestras. The daughter of Jamaican immigrants, Thompson credits her parents with giving her a strong sense of self-worth and the courage to find herself.

Thompson is a recipient of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, which guarantees scholarships and grants to cover tuition and segregated fees for Wisconsin resident students whose annual household adjusted income is $65,000 or less.

“Because of Bucky’s Tuition Promise, the financial burden was completely lifted off me, and I’ve been able to solely focus on my academics and other opportunities to become more financially stable, like jobs and internships,” she says.

Throughout her time on campus, Thompson found comfort and close friends at the Black Cultural Center, where she studied almost daily. “It’s such a welcoming and heartwarming environment,” she says.

Last summer, Thompson interned with Madison365, a local nonprofit news organization where she is now a freelance writer. She also is a data coordinator for Freedom, Inc., and will begin a full-time job with the organization after graduation.

“What I want to say to other students is that, even in those times of stress, you deserve to be here,” Thompson says. “Take care of yourself. Celebrate yourself.”