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Sven Kleinhans, student commencement speaker, has overcome challenges to excel in higher education

December 2, 2020 By Doug Erickson

Sven Kleinhans will be the student speaker at the 2020 winter commencement ceremony. Photo: Bryce Richter

In the last four years, Sven Kleinhans has earned three college degrees — two bachelor’s degrees and now a master’s degree.

Overachiever? He laughs off the idea by telling the story of how he became the student speaker for UW–Madison’s winter commencement ceremony on Dec. 13.

Applications were due by 11:59 p.m. on Nov. 2. Mere hours before, he was still writing his proposed speech and working through technology challenges as he tried to record and then download a videotape of himself giving his remarks.

“I finally submitted the application at 11:53 p.m., six minutes before the deadline,” he says. “Does that sound like an overachiever?”

Whatever the appropriate term, Kleinhans, of Ottenhofen, Germany, certainly is someone who gets things done. It’s been a consistent theme in his life.

“What drives me is the fact that I come from a hard-working family that experienced financial hardships,” he says. “I developed a sense of determination, and I want to show people in similar positions that they can achieve so much if they commit to working hard and putting effort into the things they want to achieve.”

Due to COVID-19, the winter commencement ceremony will be virtual this year. All winter graduates were eligible to apply for the student speaker position. The senior class officers selected the winner.

“Every student graduating this winter has experienced adversity in new and challenging ways this semester,” says Alec Bukowiec, senior class president. “Sven’s personal experiences overcoming adversity will help inspire the graduating class to overcome those challenges with grit. I am excited to hear Sven’s unique story of resilience and how the Wisconsin Experience has contributed to his success. “

Kleinhans, the first in his family to earn a college degree, says he’ll draw on experiences in his life to discuss resilience and the value of strong personal relationships. Both factors came into play when, as a teenager, he was briefly homeless with his mother and two younger siblings after his parents filed for divorce. The four had to leave their home at night, carrying everything they owned in a van. They bunked in tight quarters with friends for a time.

“The circumstances were quite difficult, but what stuck with me was the importance, as a family, of being able to trust each other and help each other out,” he says.

Another strong influence in his life has been soccer. As a teenager, he was selected several times for the German Youth National Team tryouts. After high school, he took a gap year to play and work for the German Football Association. During that year, he was recruited to play soccer for Bluefield College, a Baptist liberal arts college in Bluefield, Virginia. The move to the U.S. in the fall of 2016 began his journey in higher education.

He earned two bachelor’s degrees in three years from Bluefield College — one in exercise sports science, the other in criminal justice. With one year left of collegiate sports eligibility, Kleinhans came to UW–Madison in the fall of 2019 on a soccer scholarship. At the same time, he began a graduate program at the School of Education.

Red-shirted for the fall 2019 soccer season, Kleinhans, a goalkeeper, was looking forward to his final year of collegiate soccer eligibility this fall when COVID-19 forced the postponement of the season.

“This last year has been such a roller-coaster, with so many ups and downs,” he says. “My advice is to never give up, never have any regrets, and never lose focus on what really matters: the other people in your life.”

Kleinhans will be sharing speaking duties at winter commencement with, among others, keynote speaker Rose Lavelle, a UW–Madison alumna and international soccer standout. While the soccer connection is coincidental, Kleinhans says he and Lavelle probably share traits as student athletes.

“Being on a soccer team has made me the person I am today,” he says. “Without an athletic scholarship, I would not have been able to afford to come to a foreign country and study.”

Kleinhans is graduating from UW–Madison with a master’s degree in educational leadership and policy analysis. He plans to pursue a law degree in the fall of 2021, with hopes of becoming an FBI officer specializing in behavior analysis.

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