On Friday roughly 1,200 Winona State University students crossed the stage in McCown Gymnasium, shook hands with their Dean, moved their mortarboard tassels to the left, and joined the ranks of college graduates. At one point in the ceremony, I asked those who were the first in their families to graduate from college – what we call “First Gen Warriors” – to stand and be recognized. Even after 158 years of our history, half of the students stood, to raucous applause from the audience. Earning their degree represents many things to these graduates and their families: perhaps the long-awaited realization of a dream that earlier generations never achieved; perhaps the entrance to the middle class for that graduate, but also for the generations to come; perhaps the promise of a meaningful and fruitful life; perhaps a living symbol of the hard work of prior generations so that this one could finally “arrive”; and certainly a realization of their American Dream.
This year’s graduates are as impressive as ever. Maria Hiyas Quelle earned her degree while raising a daughter with Down syndrome. Nasro Abbas will leave for the Peace Corps soon after graduation. Jonathan Moore returned to college after a seven-year hiatus. Our graduates hail from parts near and far—some from mere blocks away, some from across the United States, and some from across the world. All came to call this place “home.” Most were involved in campus clubs and activities. Nearly all volunteered with roughly 100 community partners, totaling over 200,000 hours last year. All of them fulfilled our mission, and I trust will continue to do so, to “improve our world.”
This should not surprise us. A recent study by researchers at Stanford, Brown, UC-Berkeley and the U.S. Treasury, entitled “Mobility Report Cards: the Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” compares institutions like Winona State to other higher education institutional types, such as Ivy League schools, other selective private institutions, for-profits and so on. The report shows that institutions like Winona State provide the greatest upward social mobility of all four-year higher education institutional types. In fact, the share of such success stories at institutions like WSU is four or more times the rate of success at each of the other institutional types. In short, places like Winona State deliver the greatest promise of upward mobility, as our graduates this year demonstrate yet again.
So, please join us in celebrating the achievement of our students, and celebrating the promise that their achievement signifies for America’s future. Like nearly everyone who works in higher education, I am regularly humbled by the achievements of our students, and on Commencement Day most of all. It may feel to them as though we are honoring them, but even more so they have honored us.
Scott R. Olson, President
Winona State University