Wisconsin Lt. Gov Mandela Barnes shared his personal story of struggle to inspire the Class of 2021 during the La Follette School’s first all-virtual Graduation Ceremony on May 9. Barnes, the country’s youngest lieutenant governor, spoke candidly about challenging and losing to an incumbent in a race for State Senate.
“During that period of uncertainty in my own life, it made me think about what was truly important,” said Barnes, who served two terms in the State Assembly.
After leaving the Legislature, Barnes worked for a nonprofit policy organization and learned from legislators and professionals across the country. That’s when he developed many of his passions and learned that “going alone is not an option,” he said.
“Never let obstacles become obsessions, pursue your passions, serve others, stand up for what’s right, stand up for what’s just, and if you do that, you’ll never lose,” he told graduates and their families and friends.
Barnes also spoke about the impact of COVID-19 and racial injustice on their graduate school studies.
“Throughout these struggles, however unfair that they’ve been, you’ve all become stronger, become more resilient,” he said. “And the fact that you faced all of these unprecedented challenges and still made it here to this day speaks to your determination, speaks to your grit, your tenacity, speaks to your ability to adapt, your work ethic, your passion for good public policy, because Lord knows we need it now more than ever.”
Student speaker Jacob Pankratz also praised his fellow graduates for their resolve in facing challenges related to a devastating pandemic, a major movement for social justice and equality, and one of the most crucial presidential elections in U.S. history.
“We had to navigate all of these realities while continuing to study and work, and I want to make sure we acknowledge how hard that was at times,” said Pankratz. “Despite the challenges, we made it to today, but these challenges are not going away. However, I feel so confident … that the people graduating today will be change agents in these challenges, and I am excited to see how this class impacts and improves our world.”
In addition, Pankratz thanked the many people who supported him and the entire Class of 2021.
“When I came to Madison for Visit Day way back in 2019, I remember faculty and staff describing the culture of La Follette as collaborative, not competitive,” he said. “This has rung true for me so many times in working with my fellow graduates. I am so appreciative of that culture of collaboration and support for one another, and I truly believe it is the greatest strength of this school.”
Assistant Professor Lindsay Jacobs, the third speaker chosen by the Class of 2021, specializes in labor economics, with an emphasis on older populations.
Jacobs told graduates and guests that to study older people, it’s important to think about the whole life. “Our present is going to be shaped by what comes before it, and we plan with the future in mind,” she said.
Jacobs focused not on economics, but on the traits and attributes of people at different stages of the life cycle: curiosity and wonder at younger ages, search for direction and truth at middle ages, and patience and serenity at older ages.
Having three young children at home and studying older people, Jacobs lives in the middle of the life cycle and experiences all three stages.
Economic models allow people to approach and frame issues, but the tools can be complex and sophisticated-looking, she said. Relying on these tools too much can limit the opportunity to ponder and can give people a false sense of precision, Jacobs said.
“To get to the truth, we take our younger forte of curiosity and wonder and our older forte to really step back and learn—which both take actually a lot of humility—so that we can get closer to achieving the truth,” she said. “This curiosity is going to allow us to ponder that complexity, and the patience will let us step back and think about ideas and possibilities, refining those in the direction of truth. With these attributes, you need not get discouraged. You just need to, with serenity, direct any discouragement toward reassessment.”