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Life is Short; Follow Your Dreams

“Life is short … follow your dreams.”

October 02, 2018
Lori Berquam

This article is about someone who makes hilarious YouTube videos, takes loads of selfies, and can appreciate a good Internet meme. No, we’re not talking about a student. We’re describing UW–Madison’s vice provost and dean of students, Lori Berquam. For the past 13 years, Berquam has led the Division of Student Life with knowledge, insight, passion — and the inspired goofiness that is so uniquely UW. Under her leadership, the division has become one of the most visible and well-known branches of the university, helping students find academic help, practical resources, involvement opportunities, and more.

In April 2017, UW students filled Berquam’s office with an outpouring of support when she announced that she was battling breast cancer. “The good news is that I will be able to keep doing the work I love – supporting our incredible students,” is what Berquam wrote in a blog post sharing the news. And keep working is exactly what she did. Since then, the Division of Student Life helped engage the campus in difficult conversations about campus climate, the protest policy, DACA, hate and bias, and resilience. The division also celebrated some milestones: 40 years of the McBurney Disability Resource Center, and 25 years and a name change for the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center (formerly the LGBT Campus Center), and connecting with more than 1,000 alumni at events across the country.

Then, in March 2018, the students’ message of support turned to one of “don’t go” when Berquam announced that her tenure at the UW would be coming to an end. In August, she started a fellowship with the distinguished American Council on Education at the University of Arizona. “If there is one thing that cancer has taught me,” Berquam wrote in her farewell post, “is that life is short, and you have to follow your dreams.”

We at Badger Insider asked Berquam to share what she’s going to miss most about the UW as she heads for her next adventure. Here’s what she had to say:

It’s always such an awkward thing to be asked to talk about myself. My staff knows that, as much as possible, I want the focus to be on our students. They are so incredible and truly embody the Wisconsin Experience. I’ve been dean of students at UW–Madison for 13 years now and have seen and experienced more than I can even begin to capture in a few words. But, as I depart my role, I will reflect on 10 things I’ll truly miss:

  1. The physical beauty the UW–Madison campus provides. Taking a quick lunchtime run on Lakeshore path past effigy mounds, next to Lake Mendota and picnic point; soaking in the beauty and the history of this sacred land and honoring the native peoples who have been here long before us. Of course, I will also miss walking out on the lake when it has finally frozen over and getting a different perspective of campus.
  2. Watching the students change with every passing season: taking pictures sitting on Abe for graduation, throwing snowballs in the Battle for Bascom, and taking naps on gorgeous spring and summer days.
  3. Walking to get Babcock ice cream whenever I can. My favorite flavor is mocha macchiato … yum! (I may have to get this shipped to me in Arizona.)
  4. Walking through the student section at Badger games and taking selfies with students. The energy level and excitement at the games is infectious. I love when they jingle their keys (not so much when they start that one chant …).
  5. The beauty of the Red Gym. I really love the structure, and it has so many stories to tell. There is so much history there. With its architecture and strong red brick, it stands as a beacon for all of the student work that happens there. I will also miss my office in Bascom Hall. It was an honor to have an office there for 16 years. If these walls could talk … the difficult decisions made here; the energy that flowed in and out as I interacted with various students, staff, and faculty; and the joy and the heartache that comes with learning and growing and leading. As I walk up and down the steps, I often think of the people before me doing good work for students.
  6. Going around the country, learning from our alumni and recent graduates and listening to what they are doing and why the UW was such an important time in their lives. How they talk about what they are contributing to the world is absolutely amazing. It makes me so proud.
  7. Sending off the students who participate in the Wisconsin Experience Bus Trip each spring. It really captures what I think is the essence of the Wisconsin Idea — giving our students an experience of a lifetime and a deeper understanding of what it means attend a land-grant university and how it plays in their lifelong learning: how it encourages them to be vulnerable and more deeply understand the state, nation, and the world.
  8. The spirit of our students: how they can come together and figure out a way to make things happen; how they are willing to challenge us and want to make things better for future students. Their passion to organize and facilitate change is inspiring, plus how they are able to engage in disagreement on an issue, but respect the person and acknowledge the humanity, goodness, and vulnerability in each other. I will take that with me wherever I end up and will be forever grateful to all they have taught me.
  9. The compassion, care, and concern that the staff and faculty at UW–Madison show our students. Over the years, I have seen so many examples of this that I am not able to even begin to recollect and relay all they have done. In the world today, we need this more than ever, and I feel truly honored to have worked with such devoted professionals. As Naomi Tutu says, “We are who we are, through other people.” To be more pointed, I am who I am as a dean because of the many staff and faculty who have influenced me to be a better leader, a better dean, and a better person. Thank you.
  10. And lastly, I will miss the staff in the Division of Student Life, both current and former. Their commitment to the students of the University of Wisconsin–Madison is unparalleled, in my opinion. It is informed by their dedication to providing a truly unique and personal experience for each and every student who attends our great university. Their time, energy, and completely selfless work with and for students has humbled me often and has impacted — and at times, challenged — my own opinions, views, and interactions. I truly believe that I have learned from each and every one of the people who have been a part of the Division of Student Life and I will take their many lessons with me, as I take my own advice: “Life is short … follow your dreams.”

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