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UW-Madison winter Class of 2021 celebrates after years of resilience amid pandemic

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UW-Madison student speaker Jai Khanna reflected on the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic as he looked out across a sea of faces, masked under their graduation caps, during the university’s first commencement that allowed friends and families of graduates to attend in person since December 2019.

“Everyone’s journey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been a roller-coaster of emotion,” the mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree recipient told the crowd Sunday. “Our lives came to a standstill (in March 2020).”

The persistence of the health crisis, nearly two years later, was evident: Attendees were required to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, and hand-sanitizer stands were placed throughout the Kohl Center. News of the rapidly spreading omicron variant hung like a specter over the pomp and circumstance, but it did not stop 5,954 graduates, family and friends from gathering under the arena roof to celebrate. Eyes of the excited graduates twinkled in an indication of the smile they wore beneath their masks.

To mitigate virus spread, graduates were only able to remove their mask for a few moments to take a photo after they crossed the stage. In speeches, both UW-Madison Provost Karl Scholz and Chancellor Rebecca Blank noted the remarkable resilience showed by students throughout the pandemic.

During his speech, Khanna recounted his experience as an international student after he chose to stay in Madison to finish a couple projects once the virus hit — thinking it wouldn’t last too long — instead of immediately booking a plane ticket back home to India. Before he knew it, borders closed as the global health crisis worsened and he was required to shelter in place with his roommates in his apartment, where he found solace in board games and stand-up comedy.

That experience, he said, inspired him to find a way to be silly each day and to live in the moment, his parting advice for his classmates.

After offering appreciation and a round of applause to University Health Services, doctors and nursing staff, he ended his speech by beatboxing into the mic, in an effort to follow his own advice to the graduating class.

No hats were tossed to close out the ceremony, but the crowd swayed together as they sang the UW-Madison alma mater and cheered the new graduates, roughly 1,823 doctoral, professional, master’s and bachelor’s students who earned degrees Sunday.

Graduates and families found each other after the ceremony in a crush of bodies in the hallway outside of the arena.

Clarissa Djoanda, a biomedical engineering graduate, said she felt excited to attend the ceremony but was still wary of the crowd due to the pandemic and the new, rapidly spreading omicron variant.

“It’s definitely an experience,” she said of attending the university during the pandemic. “I didn’t expect my college to be like that.”

Djoanda is excited, she said, to move to Seattle where she’ll work as a researcher at a pharmaceutical company.

Ana Ndahayo, whose degree is in political science and legal studies with a certificate in public policy, transferred from UW-Milwaukee during the spring 2020 semester and said she found a lot of community through college organizations once COVID restrictions began to ease.

“I feel really prepared, I feel really good and I’m proud of my degree,” she said. “It’s nice to have my family here and to have their support.”

Ndahayo will teach mathematics in Indianapolis through Teach For America, a nonprofit organization based in New York that focuses on education.

Keynote speaker Manu Raju, a UW-Madison alum, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent and son of immigrant parents, imparted words of wisdom to the graduates.

“Meaningful rewards will seldom materialize without daunting risk, and until those rewards are visible your failures ought not blind your foresight of what is possible,” he told them. “The University of Wisconsin teaches a master class in this timeless value of perseverance.”


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