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Student commencement speaker once struggled with words. Now he’ll address thousands.

May 3, 2023 By Doug Erickson
A portrait photo of Liam McLean standing outside with a green lawn and campus buildings out of focus behind him.

Liam McLean, senior class president, will address the graduating class of 2023 on May 13 as this spring’s commencement student speaker. Photo: Bryce Richter

Liam McLean did not have it easy as a kid. Due to a severe delay in his speech and language development, he found it difficult to enunciate words or even compose sentences. He spent years in speech therapy and endured withering mockery from classmates.

“I was bullied relentlessly,” says McLean, a UW–Madison senior. “It was horrible, and at that age, I didn’t have the verbal skills or emotional intelligence to handle it.”

Now, as president of UW–Madison’s senior class, McLean will address tens of thousands of people May 13 at Camp Randall as the student speaker for spring commencement. It’s a turn of events he calls “mad ironic.”

“It’s a complete 180, to be sure,” he says. “To be on the other side of the rainbow now is beyond belief.”

The challenges he faced as a child continue to resonate in his life, but in ways that are constructive now instead of dispiriting. As a student leader, McLean has sought to be a good listener, empower others and, above all else, model kindness and empathy in his actions. He believes his experiences during his formative years helped shape this approach.

“It’s difficult to not have a voice,” says McLean, who is majoring in political science with certificates in entrepreneurship and leadership. “The natural thing for me when I found my voice was to want to help others find theirs. Truly, my greatest joy is helping other people be heard.”

Senior Parham Abunasr-Shiraz, who has known McLean since eighth grade, says his friend found his niche at UW–Madison as an advocate for other students.

“The arc and the evolution of it all has been super cool to watch,” says Abunasr-Shiraz, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the senior class.

McLean says his interest in leadership took off in high school when he became heavily involved in the Jewish teen movement known as BBYO, eventually holding office on the group’s international executive board. McLean grew up in the northern Milwaukee suburb of Fox Point and attended Nicolet High School in nearby Glendale, Wisconsin.

Classical music was another passion for McLean in high school. He played the double bass, performing for six years with the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. To this day, whenever he writes a speech, he marks up his copy like sheet music, inserting crescendos and pauses.

As a sophomore at UW, McLean served as president of the Interfraternity Council. He focused in part on providing campus fraternities with opportunities to learn about sexual assault prevention. During his tenure, the IFC brought in programming on toxic masculinity, and McLean co-founded the IFC Coalition of Men Against Sexual Violence. The IFC also partnered with groups outside of Greek life on a “Take Back the Night” march to condemn sexual violence and commit to a safe community.

As senior class president, McLean and his fellow officers have sought to build a sturdy scaffolding of policies, procedures and programs that will benefit their successors. They brought back some events, like TEDx UW–Madison, and launched new ones, like a gathering for first-generation college students graduating in the class of 2023.

McLean is especially proud of the emphasis the Senior Class Office has placed on mental health. The class of 2023 faced many challenges, McLean notes, including being sent home in the spring of 2020 due to a global pandemic. The senior class gift will benefit the Center for Healthy Minds Higher Education Fund and the student-initiated campus group Healthy Minds on Campus.

McLean is looking forward to addressing the crowd at spring commencement. He no longer has any qualms about public speaking. In fact, he jokes that it’s quite the opposite.

“Now my problem is I can talk for four hours without repeating myself,” he says, adding that at his part-time job, he’s “a really chatty cashier at the Walgreens on State Street.”

Says his friend Abunasr-Shiraz: “If there’s one thing I know about Liam, it’s that he’s very passionate about everything he does. He’s got one speed, and it’s 100 miles per hour. He’s going to give this speech everything he’s got.”

McLean says there likely will be people in the crowd at Camp Randall who bullied him as a child. The kid in him will feel vindicated, he says, but the adult in him prefers to focus now on those who showed him compassion when he was struggling.

“I had dozens of people in my life who cared about what happened to me, and they helped me work really hard to be good at talking,” he says. “They believed that this kid who couldn’t get words out of his mouth was worth something. They saw the best in me.”