UWRF graduation

The University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduates have faced all sorts of challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and have worked hard to overcome them to graduate with their degrees, renowned Minnesota high school basketball coach and keynote speaker Larry McKenzie told attendees at the university’s graduation ceremonies May 6. 

McKenzie, a UW-River Falls alum who coached two Minneapolis high school boys basketball teams to six state championships, credited students for their perseverance in obtaining their degrees and likened them to superheroes for doing so.

“If I were to give this class a name, I would call you ‘the overcomers,’” McKenzie told students. “Despite your adversities, we are here today to celebrate your accomplishments.”

McKenzie addressed graduates at two separate commencement ceremonies in Knowles Field House in the Falcon Center on campus. A total of 749 students were scheduled to graduate, including 652 who received bachelor’s degrees, 84 who received master’s degrees and 13 with associate degrees. 

UW-River Falls Chancellor Maria Gallo praised students for their work to obtain their degrees. Interacting with students on campus is “by far the most rewarding part of my job,” she told graduates.  

“Whether it is a job offer in a new city, a chance to start your own business, going to graduate school, or an opportunity to travel the world, do not be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and take a leap of faith,” Gallo said. “This is not the end, but only the beginning, as you leave with your UW-River Falls education and use it to pursue your career or continue your education.”

McKenzie said that like this year’s graduates, he faced his own adversity. In fact, he said, based on his background, “I am not supposed to be here.”

McKenzie’s grandparents had little access to education and worked hard in search of the American dream, he said. He was born to a teen mother and his father worked three jobs. He spent his early years living in a housing project in Miami, in the kind of place “where dreams were often deferred,” he said. 

Nearly five decades ago, McKenzie traveled by Greyhound bus halfway across the country to a place neither he nor his mother were familiar with. 

“All she knew was that I, her oldest child, was going to college in Wisconsin near a river and a waterfall,” McKenzie said in reference to River Falls.

Graduating with an academic degree is a laudable achievement, McKenzie said, “and will open doors that you never imagined.” But other skills students learn by attending college also will serve them well as they progress through life, he said. 

“As a fellow UWRF alumnus, what I’m most grateful for from my time at UWRF is the life lessons I learned on how to navigate real life,” McKenzie told students. “It was here where I learned that I’d mastered being an overcomer.”

Student speaker Brigitte Ledferd also praised students for overcoming challenges on the way to obtaining their degrees. She faced her own challenges, growing up in northern Wisconsin as the daughter of a single mother who she credits with helping her make it to UW-River Falls. She also faced mental health challenges, she said. 

Ledferd praised UW-River Falls’s faculty, mentors and her fellow students for helping her and others reach graduation. She urged her fellow graduates to use their experiences while at UW-River Falls as they move into the next chapter of their lives. 

“These experiences you will spend the rest of your life thinking back on, they would have never happened if you didn’t allow yourself to be uncomfortable, to start a conversation, to say yes to an opportunity,” Ledferd said. “Trust yourself, and trust that wherever you end up is a new chapter.”

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