A sea of smiles on commencement day; year-end student honors

Few days are more enjoyable on campus than commencement. It never gets old seeing the sea of graduates smiling in Johnson Fieldhouse as they await their walk across the stage to pick up their diploma and start a new phase in their lives.

I also enjoy meeting many of the graduates and their families and friends at the reception after the ceremonies, and it is a privilege for me to have pictures taken as well. These are moments the graduates will cherish forever, and it is a thrill to be part of it.

I will post my entire commencement speech at the end of this blog entry, but I want to mention two people around whom I centered my remarks last Saturday: the late Chancellor Emeritus Charles W. Sorensen and the late first-year UW-Stout student Nicholas Nelson.

I told the audience that Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen, who died in February of complications from a stroke, is a big reason why UW-Stout enjoys such a strong reputation today, why we maintain such a high job placement rate for our graduates and why we are Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University. For 26 years, Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen pushed this university to innovate and to excel, and I believe our graduates could learn some valuable lessons from his life and accomplishments.

I never got the chance to know Nick Nelson, but I met his family from Mondovi. Nick was majoring in computer science-game design when he died in March of complications from muscular dystrophy. Because of the courage Nick displayed through his illness, and because of his enormous affection for UW-Stout, I presented Nick’s family with the first-ever Stouthearted Award during the morning commencement ceremony.

I asked the graduates to consider, when they are confronted with life’s obstacles, how both Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen and Nick Nelson handled adversity: with courage to try to change the world.

I also wanted to say how pleased I am that six of our graduating Army ROTC cadets were able to take the Oath of Office during the morning ceremony. The lengthy standing ovation that these new second lieutenants received from their fellow graduates and the audience was very emotional. More on commencement is available here.

ROTC_03Honoring two special groups of students

In the days leading up to commencement, I had the opportunity to honor two groups of graduates who have excelled: those who participated in the federal McNair Scholars program and those who received the Samuel E. Wood Medallion, a nonacademic leadership award.

The McNair program is intended to help first-generation, limited income and underrepresented students get their degree and prepare for graduate school. I was proud to list the universities that our McNair graduates will be attending next year and their accomplishments.

This was an incredibly impressive group of scholars, and I’m sure each of them will accomplish whatever their goals might be.

Thanks to Sarah Wynn and her McNair staff for all they do, and we were happy to have Kelly Westlund from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s staff help us celebrate the McNair graduates as well.

The Wood award ceremony holds a special place for me because I received the medallion 40-some years ago during my undergraduate days at UW-Stout. The award honors the life and accomplishments of Sam Wood, who I knew as UW-Stout’s dean of students and adviser to the Stout Student Association. (With Sam’s help, I was able to work with the former state Elections Board to make it easier for students to register to vote.)

The medallion means so much to me that I keep it where I can see it before going to work each morning. Seeing the medallion reminds me to try to lead like Sam Wood and to honor the “code of leadership” that signifies the medallion honorees.

Finally, I want to wish our students, faculty, staff, alumni and newest alumni — our 1,379 graduates— a great summer. I hope you have time to engage in the activities that you enjoy and to relax a little as well.

SamuelWoodCommencement speech transcript

Greetings on this great day to graduates, their families and friends, my colleagues on stage and in the audience — and everyone else who is celebrating with us.

It is truly an honor and a pleasure to recognize the accomplishments of so many talented individuals. This day is all about the graduates, those in front of me in their gowns and mortar boards.

But we all know it takes a lot of support for them to get to this point in their lives. So I would like to recognize the parents, grandparents and other family members who traveled here to see these cherished diplomas being handed out. Could all of these family members please stand up to be recognized? Thank you.

I also want to take a moment, in advance, to wish all the mothers in the audience a very special and happy Mother’s Day. Everyone knows how important mothers are in the lives of their children and the hard work, tears and patience it takes to be a good mother these days. I hope all mothers have a special day May 13th.

Before we get to the main event — handing out diplomas — I’d like to tell you about two very special people who passed away recently.

First, there’s Charles W. Sorensen. He was chancellor here for 26 years until 2014, the longest-serving chancellor in our 127-year history. He died Feb. 23 at age 77 at his home in Florida.

Now, I know going back even to my days as an undergraduate here, that students may not know or even care who the chancellor is. But you should know a little about Chuck Sorensen.

He’s a big reason why UW-Stout is a widely respected university today, why we have an incredible 98.2 percent employment rate for graduates and why we’re known as Wisconsin’s only Polytechnic University.

In fact, Chuck Sorensen’s leadership is why UW-Stout:

  • Has half of our 49 undergraduate majors. Many of you are graduating from programs that didn’t exist before Chuck became chancellor. Without him, maybe you wouldn’t have come here, and wouldn’t that have been shame?
  • He’s why we have a laptop computer program. The laptop computers all students receive as freshmen and our digital learning environment began under Chuck in 2001.
  • He’s a big reason why we won the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award also in 2001, the only four-year university in the country to do so.
  • He’s why our physical campus is a special place to learn and live. New buildings and renovations under Chuck included Jarvis Hall, the student center, Red Cedar Hall, the football stadium, Harvey Hall, Millennium Hall and many more. Also, the two north-south pedestrian malls were built under him. How many times have you used those?

Each one of you has benefited from his leadership, from his life, even though you are the first graduating class in 26 years who likely did not have him as your chancellor during any of your time here.

Chuck wasn’t just a great and innovative chancellor — and I know because I worked under him for many years — but a great example of how education can change a life. He grew up poor and was the first in his family to earn a college degree. He almost didn’t go to college but went on to earn master’s and doctorate degrees.

In his final commencement speech as UW-Stout chancellor nearly five years ago, he spoke from experience when he said: “Dare to dream. Dare to trust in yourself. Dare to believe in your ability to reach beyond the here and now.”

Those words continue to resonate today, and all of us would do well to take them to heart.

Chuck Sorensen would have been proud of a young man named Nicholas “Nick” Nelson — who truly did as Chuck said — “believe in his ability to reach beyond the here and now.”

At age 5, Nick was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. At age 9, he went into a wheelchair.

But that didn’t stop Nick from dreaming and inspiring others. Despite physical limitations and many medical challenges, he graduated with honors in 2017 from nearby Mondovi High School.

Nick loved to play video games. His dream was to design them, so he set his sights on the computer science-game design program at UW-Stout. When he received his acceptance letter, his father John said “It put the biggest smile on his face we’d ever seen.”

But before classes even began last fall, Nick’s appendix ruptured. He spent several months in the hospital and had to withdraw from classes. Undaunted, he signed up for 13 credits this semester and began attending classes, with the help of his dad at his side.

In March, however, Nick’s chronically weak heart began to fail. Surrounded by his family at their home, he died March 28 — a little less than six weeks ago. He was 19 years old.

In those final days of his life, when he wished he could have been in his cyber ethics or government classes, he still was working on his assignments in bed — even though he knew he wouldn’t live much longer.

When asked about his greatest accomplishment in life. He said, “Going to Stout.”

Nick was buried in a Blue Devils sweatshirt.

His motto was “Born with a physical disability. Playing life in hard mode.” He believed that he hadn’t truly beaten a video game until he’d beaten it at the highest level.

The true heart of Nick Nelson was strong as nails. He faced life’s toughest challenges and didn’t complain. He embraced the challenge. Even with his physical limitations, he thought of others. He did community service and once even offered his beloved GameBoy to the victims of a fire.

He truly enriched the lives of everyone around him, in part fulfilling a prophecy of sorts. When Nick was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, his dad visited a chaplain. The chaplain said, “Maybe Nick’s reason for being here is to inspire other people.”

How true those words turned out to be. Nick’s impact was great. I can attest to that when I saw the long line of people who attended his wake.

Nick’s parents, John and Sheila, sister and his grandparents are with us today. I’d like to them to stand …

One of the many pleasures a Chancellor has is to recognize students for their academic performance.  It is my pleasure to present a first-ever recognition to Nick Nelson for the heart he demonstrated in his academic pursuits at UW-Stout.  We are presenting Nick with a newly minted “Stouthearted Award” posthumously.  Let me read the certificate to you as Nick’s parents come to the stage.

John and Sheila plan to establish a scholarship in Nick’s name. If you are interested in contributing to this fund, please let Vice Chancellor Mark Parsons know during the reception that follows today’s ceremony. Mark is the Director of the Stout University Foundation.

Nick received support at UW-Stout from our amazing staff and students at ASPIRE-Student Support Services and Disability Services. He was a special friend to the men’s and women’s club volleyball teams and women’s varsity volleyball team.

Today, as you leave this hall, I hope that you will think about Chuck Sorensen and Nick Nelson. Consider how valuable their lives were, albeit in very different ways. But there is no template for life, is there?

Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus said: “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

How will you react to the opportunities and obstacles in your life in the years to come? Will you be courageous enough to try to change the world, like Chuck and Nick?

How will you use your college diploma? You’ve been exposed to many people and ideas here at UW-Stout. Leverage this experience. Listen to your colleagues and peers carefully, accepting their differences and respecting their points of view.

Share your ideas and thoughts civilly and professionally. Epictetus also said, “You have two ears and one mouth, so you should listen twice as much as you talk.”

Be a Servant Leader. James Hunter, author of the book “The Servant,” said, “Patience, kindness, humility, selflessness, respectfulness, forgiveness, honesty and commitment. These character-building blocks, or habits, must be developed and matured if we are to become successful leaders who will stand the test of time.”

Finally, be grateful for others in your life. Be grateful for people like Chuck Sorensen and Nick Nelson — who dared to dream big and dared to take on life in hard mode, at the highest levels.

My final thought involves a little exercise intended to recognize all the people who were involved in helping you get to this point in your lives. I have found this exercise useful in showing our graduates an important lesson that has been reinforced for me — that every student who earns a diploma gets to commencement with the assistance of a great many people.

  • Would all of the graduates here today who received some form of financial aid, a grant, or loan, or scholarship please rise and stay standing?
  • Would all of the graduates present who received crucial help or encouragements from a member of the faculty, staff, coach, advisor or other member of the UW-Stout community please stand and remain standing?
  • Would all of the graduates who benefited by studying with a friend or fellow student or had a tutor, please rise and stay standing?
  • Would all of the graduates who received help and encouragement from their parents or another family member or close friend please rise?

As the Roman philosopher Cicero once stated: “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”

You, like me, were blessed to have the assistance, generosity, encouragement and contributions of others.  We couldn’t have achieved what we do without our faculty and staff, family, friends and colleagues.  Let’s take the time once again to thank them for their important impacts on our lives [

For all of us at UW-Stout, it truly is an honor to share this moment with you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me personally.

On behalf of the UW-System Board of Regents and UW-Stout’s faculty, staff, and fellow students, I extend our sincere congratulations to you and offer our best wishes as you take the first steps on your next exciting journey!

Finally, I would like to invite our graduates to return often. We would love to have you check in with us. We take great pride in your accomplishments, and we can learn from your experiences too!

Thank you.