Skip to main content

Spring commencement: Transcript of address by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin

May 16, 2006

Spring Commencement Address
Delivered by Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin
May 14-15, 2005
Kohl Center

Chancellor, graduates, families, friends, faculty, staff and other honored guests: I’m truly delighted to be with you today. I wish I could say that this reminds me of my own graduation from law school back in 1989, but I can’t. I hardly remember that ceremony. One of my professors told us of our final papers, "Just get it in before you graduate." Well, I took her at her word and spent the last 36 hours before graduation getting the paper done. By the time I got to the ceremony, I could barely keep my eyes open.

So to those of you out there whose heads are nodding or eyelids are drooping – and I do see a few of you — you have my total sympathy. But I’m also going to ask you to wake up, at least for a little while, because I really want you to remember this moment. Take a deep breath and think about what you’ve accomplished to get here. And take a moment to appreciate the friends and family, faculty and staff who helped you along the way.

And remember, but don’t dwell on, all the others — the ones I call the naysayers, the cynics, the keepers of the status quo. You know, the ones who told you, "You’d never make it," "You’ll never get into this university," or once you got there, they said, "You’ll never get through that course." Now they’re probably saying, "Stop dreaming. You won’t get that job or into that graduate program."

Well, I’ve got some brief words of advice, but I can’t say them in public, so what I’ll say is, "Ignore them!" You can’t imagine how many times in my own political career, I was told, often by well-meaning friends, "You can’t. You shouldn’t. You won’t."

You need only look at my career to realize that the naysayers and the cynics don’t determine your future – you do. And this is true whether you’re 12, 20 or turning gray.

Now, I know it can be bittersweet to walk around campus in your final days as a student here. I grew up on this campus. My grandfather was on the faculty, my grandmother was a member of the staff, and my mother and father were undergrads when I was born.

To this day, I can’t drive by the building that housed my grandfather’s biochemistry lab without remembering the chalkboard in his office on which, when my pre-school peers were learning to draw stick figures, I was learning to draw mitochondria.

And each time I’m near the Union Theater, I can picture the costume shop backstage where my grandmother once worked. She taught me that if you spray paint gumballs white and string them on a sturdy thread, they make a pretty economical string of pearls. No kidding!

And I can’t walk through Library Mall without remembering how my mother took me to rallies there, teaching me that you’re never too young to speak your mind and be politically active.

Each of you has a personal set of memories of this magical place. But along with those memories and the diploma, you will carry something even more precious. It’s called the Wisconsin Idea, and you are its emissary and the legacy of this idea.

Among all the states, Wisconsin stands alone in its claim to an idea that, like a torch, is passed from generation to generation. In simple terms, the Wisconsin Idea is often explained by saying that the boundaries of the University are the boundaries of the state.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Idea, family farmers are benefiting directly and promptly from the cutting-edge research on this campus that helps their crops and livestock thrive, boosting not just the state’s economy, but its reputation in the world.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Idea, we set an example for the nation in our attention to conservation of our natural resources.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Idea, the evolving technology of first radio, then television, and now the Internet, was harnessed for educational purposes, bringing learning opportunities to even the most remote parts of the state. Thanks to the Wisconsin Idea, the Social Security Act of 1935 assured that no senior citizen would ever again face retirement in abject poverty and that no child would suffer that fate when a parent dies.

Thanks to the Wisconsin Idea, Wisconsin businesses have as their consultants all the brainpower of this university system, and researchers and patients around the world are benefiting from the biomedical achievements of our scientists. It was the Wisconsin Idea that inspired Theodore Roosevelt to write, "In no other state in the Union has any university done the same work for the community that has been done in Wisconsin by the University of Wisconsin."

The statesman Adlai Stevenson said this idea "meant a faith in the application of intelligence and reason to the problems of society."

Also accurate and, appropriately for Adlai Stevenson, more intellectual. But let’s think about how this grand idea applies on more personal terms. How can one person, how can each of you embody the Wisconsin Idea? And you must, because if you want to be a Badger, it’s not enough to put on a red sweatshirt and cheer at the football games. If you want be a Badger, you’ll wear The Wisconsin Idea on your sleeve and make the time you spent here count for something.

Use what you’ve learned here to better the lives of not just you and your family, but all of our families, our communities, our nation and our world through the sciences, arts, and industries that you’ve studied. Which doesn’t mean you have to win a Nobel Prize or a Pulitzer or an Oscar — though Mom and Dad wouldn’t mind putting one of those on the mantel. It just means use what you learned here to help make our world a better place. Not everyone who does amazing things is on the cover of Newsweek or on "Larry King Live." UW–Madison grads just like you are working in laboratories growing stem cells that may lead to treatments and cures for some of the world’s most debilitating and catastrophic medical problems.

UW grads are in a shop in Waterloo, Wisconsin, building bicycles that may lead Lance Armstrong and his teammates to their next Tour de France victory. UW grads are applying their talents all over the world as Peace Corps volunteers.

UW grads are singing and dancing on Broadway, but they’re also teaching and inspiring youngsters to reach their own potential.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is a public institution, which means that every taxpaying citizen of the State of Wisconsin has pitched in a few dollars to help fund your education. Now fortunately for you, we weren’t reminding you to pick up your clothes, cut your hair, study harder or call us every week. But we were there supporting you and rooting for you. And now that you’re graduating, we’re counting on you.

We’re counting on you to take risks, to dream big dreams and not let those naysayers rob you of your aspirations. We’re counting on you to embody the Wisconsin Idea and use your knowledge for the common good.

As a commencement speaker, it is my duty to send you off into the world with some sage advice and encouragement. I think that’s something we could all use a little more of these days — especially when we see how volatile the world has become and how quickly situations at home and around the world can change. But change is inevitable.

You don’t need a member of Congress to tell you that we, as a nation, are facing challenges most of us never imagined. You are the post-September 11th generation and the future is uncertain.

Today, in the 21st century, our reach is so much more expansive, our relationships so much more global. The Wisconsin Idea now extends far beyond the boundary lines of our state map, but still it connects us – person to person, generation to generation.

So on behalf of the people of the State of Wisconsin, I join your families, your friends and your teachers in honoring you on your graduation.

And while, as Wisconsinites, our investment in your education will now pass to a new class of students, we will never stop rooting for you. Congratulations and good luck!

In 1998, Wisconsin 2nd District Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin became the first woman from her state to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. She has been re-elected to the seat three times. Her career in elective office began in 1986 when she became a member of the Dane County Board of Supervisors, on which she served four terms, followed by three terms in the Wisconsin State Assembly. She received her law degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1989.

Tags: commencement