2012 UW PEOPLE Scholar Graduation
A Journey of Excellence
Counterclockwise from upper right: The UW Gospel Choir
performs; Agnes Olson (l-r) PEOPLE director Jacqueline De
Walt and Assistant Dean Mercile Lee; Keynote speaker Dr.
John FRrancis (r) shakes hands with PEOPLE Scholar
Javier Barbosa-Mireles who introduced Francis; The 2012
UW PEOPLE Scholar graduating class; PEOPLE graduate
Maia Pearson (c) with her mother Gloria Pearson (r) and
grandmothjer Sadie Pearson; PEOPLE graduate
Souleevanh Thao (second left) and her family with
Jacqueline DeWalt (third left); PEOPLE graduate Bettina
Billings (c) and her mom Sharon Billings (l) and her sister
By Jonathan Gramling
After what seemed like an immensely long journey when the UW PEOPLE
Program, UW-Madison’s successful initiative to increase the number of
students of color and first generation students entering UW-Madison first
began back in the 1990s, the journey has been worth it as dozens of UW
PEOPLE Scholars graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — as
well as other outstanding universities like Columbia and Duke — each year.
On May 11, the PEOPLE Program held its celebration of the graduating
PEOPLE Scholars in Varsity Hall at Union South. Several hundred students,
family members and supporters shared a meal together before the graduates
received their PEOPLE Scholar stoles, certificates and gifts and spoke to
those assembled about the long journey that they had now completed and
about the next leg of the journey for many of them.
Dr. John Francis, a visiting associate professor at the UW Nelson Institute and
the keynote speaker, noted his own incredible journey to knowledge and self-
fulfillment, a journey that he used to reflect on the journey that the PEOPLE
Scholars had been on.
After witnessing an oil spill, Francis walked across the United States, not
speaking for 17 years and not riding in a motorized vehicle for 22 years. And
along the way, Francis gained formal and informal knowledge along the way
including a Ph.D. from the UW’s Nelson Institute. And through his journey he
realized that the concern for the environment really begins in the home of
“Endangered species, loss of habitat, all of those things are really important,”
Francis said. “But what really struck me was that if people were part of the
environment, then our first chance to do something for the environment is
how we treated each other. For me, environment became about human rights
and civil rights and gender equality and economic equity and all of the ways
that we are related to one another.”
As he continued on his journey, which eventually led him to the East Coast
where he spoke for the first time in 17 years at the 1990 Earth Day celebration
in Washington, D.C., his parents remained engaged in his journey with his
father still being present at the milestones that occurred in Francis’ life. While
his father didn’t necessarily agree with everything Francis was doing — he
would urge him to talk and ride in a car — he was there for Francis.
“He was always there no matter what happened,” Francis said. “I know it
wasn’t easy for you to get to this day, this evening, this graduation. I know
there were days when it just didn’t look like it was worth it, didn’t look like
you were going to make it, it didn’t look like you could possibly graduate.
There were people there who supported you. There are people here sitting
right next to you who loved and cared for you and helped you to that next
Francis urged the students to follow what is in their hearts because they can’t
predict where their journey to self-realization will take them.
“I saw this oil spill and I didn’t know what to do,” Francis said. “So I just
started walking. After a time of walking and not speaking, but listening, I
ended up on the East Coast of the United States with a Ph.D. I could not have seen that would happen. It wasn’t even in my plan. The only
thing that I planned on was to live this passion that is in my heart, to live something that was bigger than me. I didn’t know what that
meant. I’m thinking now we are on this journey together.”
Francis reminded the PEOPLE Scholars that graduation is not the end of their journeys and that the next leg in their journey to self-
realization is about to begin.
“This evening is a celebration, but we don’t want you to stop,” Francis emphasized. “We don’t want you to say, ‘Okay I’ve done that. Okay
I’ve finished my degree.’ We want you to live your dreams. We want you to live your passion. We want you to make a difference. When I
say thank you for being here, I’m thanking you because you have made such a difference in my life that I am here now speaking to you
and you are the graduating class, the PEOPLE graduating class. Don’t stop. Keep walking. Keep listening to each other. Keep loving
each other. Keep supporting each other. And those that love you will show up to be there with you at the end.”
Francis, the UW PEOPLE Program and the PEOPLE Scholars will all continue their journey to excellence.