First Wave Scholar speaks to “Be the Change” theme at UW-Madison Chancellor’s Convocation

About 7,000 students were invited to the Sept. 1 Chancellor’s Convocation welcoming ceremony at the Kohl’s Center on the UW-Madison campus.

The students got a lot of pitches along the way: shouts from sorority girls (“Interested in going Greek?”); chalked invitations to free meals or ice cream floats from churches and campus organizations; music schedules from local clubs; a chance to fill out a survey and get a free sandwich from Chick-fil-A.

Chancellor Becky Blank addresses students at the Sept. 1 Convocation.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank addresses students at the Sept. 1 Convocation opening the 2015-16 school year. Photo by Bryce Richter/University Communications

But one unified pitch came from the speakers at Convocation, a formal affair where university leadership in formal academic attire were welcomed by trumpet fanfare. That pitch was for getting involved in the movement for social and racial justice, starting by delving into the UW’s “Go Big Read” choice, Just Mercy: a Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Students could pick up a copy of the book for free in the lobby.

“Learning here is much more than just sitting in a classroom,” said Chancellor Rebecca Blank. “Learning is also about conversations with this immensely diverse community of students and faculty. It’s about being part of student organizations, study abroad trips, internships and outside the classroom experiences. It’s about taking part in making the world better. That’s what this year’s theme — be the change — is all about.”

Vice Provost & CDO Patrick J. Sims  encourages students to get involved.
Vice Provost & CDO Patrick J. Sims encourages students to focus and grow. Photo by Bryce Richter/University Communications

Blank encouraged students to keep an open mind, suggesting that they might find something they are passionate about, the way the book’s author did. “Bryan Stevenson tells the story of moving down South as a new law school grad and taking on racist judges, prosecutors and police. He won some big cases that freed innocent people and changed the laws of this country — all when he was really just a few years older than you are,” said Blank. “And he helped create a movement for equal and fair treatment in the criminal justice system. For poor and rich, black and white, for children as well as adults.”

Patrick Sims, Vice Provost for Diversity and Chief  assistant dean for student diversity programs, continued the theme: “We seem to be overdue for a robust national conversation about all the inequalities in America, “ said Sims. “We can now officially celebrate love in its simplest form with same-sex couples having the right to marry the same way that heterosexual couples do. My Anglo brothers and sisters are beginning to challenge the unequal treatment of people of color in our criminal justice system like never before. We are starting to understand that we are intimately connected and that change is an essential part of that process.”

Sims also urged the freshmen to keep in mind a larger purpose. “Your number one goal is to excel in your studies. But to what end? I ask you,” said Sims. “I challenge you to think about it in the context of improving not just your life, but the life of everyone around you.”

Student speaker and First Wave Scholar Hiwot Adilow urged the freshmen to read the book they were about to receive. “I think you’re all pretty lucky to be getting some free literature this morning, which is basically free knowledge,” said Adilow, a junior who is part of First Wave, UW’s hip-hop and spoken word scholarship program, and the poetry editor of the Madison Review. “Of course you have to read the book to learn from it.”

STudent speaker and First Wave Scholar Hiwot Adilow. Bryce Richter/University Communications
Student speaker and First Wave Scholar Hiwot Adilow. Photo by Bryce Richter/University Communications

Quoting from Just Mercy, she continued: “’All of our survival is tied to the survival of everyone.’ And I hope this is how you all choose to move through your experience here at the UW and beyond. When challenged to connect with people from different backgrounds those of you who are more widely represented and protected may suggest that we just focus on the similarities. The thought of us all being the same is sweet and somewhat true. We’re all Badgers. We’re all brilliant and we’re all here to pursue a world-class education. The thing is, to say we’re all the same is to erase those of us who are not widely represented and protected. People who are nothing like you are undeniably valuable.”

“Whether you’re from a corner of Wisconsin or somewhere across the ocean, there is more for you to see,” continued Adilow. “And it benefits no one and contradicts the Wisconsin Idea when we elect to avoid the truths of this county, state and world.”

As a testament to the university’s commitment to the theme of racial and social justice, robed representatives from the UW’s faculty, including Chancellor Blank, were poised at the exits, personally handing copies of the book to students. In my opinion, if we want to work together to create a more just society, that’s a good place to start.

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