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Speaker to graduates: Critical thinking will be key in real world

The ability to think critically that comes with a University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire education will serve its graduates well, both in their professional careers and in their participation in our nation’s democracy, the university’s commencement speaker told the class of 2018 during graduation ceremonies May 19.

Delivering the “Charge to the Class” was Dr. Nancy Fugate Woods, a 1968 UW-Eau Claire graduate and Eau Claire native. A member of the first graduating class of the university’s nursing program, she went on to a distinguished career of nearly 50 years as a nurse, professor, researcher and academic dean before her 2017 retirement from the University of Washington School of Nursing. Woods received the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association’s Lifetime Excellence Award at a midday event between commencement ceremonies.

Woods drew parallels between the U.S. social climate during her college years and today, noting that during both periods, the issues of the day were causes of worry for college students.

“Yes, I graduated from this university 50 years ago, a time of great social turmoil,” Woods said. “Sound familiar?”

In the 1960s, protests on college campuses were common as students engaged with the issues of the day, Woods said. Those included racial segregation, bans on immigration from certain countries, and discrimination in voting, housing and hiring. Students witnessed the passage of such landmark legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Fair Hiring Act, the Immigration and Nationality Services Act, and the Voting Rights Act, all in 1965; and the Fair Housing act of 1968. The era also saw surges in activism supporting the environment, equality of women, health care for older Americans, gay rights and an end to the Vietnam War.

Fifty years later, today’s college graduates, like those of the 1960s, enter the “reality of the world of emerging adults and employment” during a time of political and social turbulence, Woods said, noting that “my generation has left you with some wicked problems — problems with no easy solutions or quick fixes.”

Today’s students leave the university in the midst of such issues as the Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, worries over existing and potential international conflicts, disagreements over a national health plan and redividing of electoral districts, and problems related to affordable housing and income inequality, Woods said. Solving those problems requires considering multiple perspectives, communication across different sectors, collaboration with others who have competing ideas, creating novel solutions and commitment, she told the graduates.

"How do you evaluate the truth value of a tweet? How do you evaluate the value of science versus personal opinion? How do you imagine solutions to some of the wicked problems confronting us?" Woods asked. "You will need to go beyond your comfort zone. This doesn’t require risking your life or traveling the globe, but risks growing your understanding of people who are different from you.”

Woods encouraged graduates to engage by volunteering in their communities, to “listen, then think again,” to express their ideas “with respect and civility,” to cultivate balance and to have fun.

Expertise in one’s field will come with practice, Woods advised.

“In ‘Outliers,’ Malcolm Gladwell estimates it takes roughly 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in one’s field,” she said. “That’s a lot of listening and thinking and communicating.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire alumna Nancy Fugate Woods, a 1968 nursing graduate and recipient of the UW-Eau Claire Alumni Association's Lifetime Excellence Award, delivered the Charge to the Class during the May 2018 commencement ceremonies.