Students – On Wisconsin For UW-Madison Alumni and Friends Mon, 17 Sep 2018 15:53:15 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Big Dig Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:27 +0000 Pulling a soil sample from frozen Wisconsin ground in January is not impossible, but it certainly isn’t easy.

Armed with a steel pick, plant pathology professor Douglas Rouse sent dirt, grass, and ice flying into the sunlight at the UW Arboretum as a small group of introductory biology students noted the location and condition of the frozen soil. Thawed or frozen, wet or dry, the soil remains an essential hunting ground. Within it lies the key to suppressing what the United Nations calls “the greatest and most urgent global risk”: superbugs — strains of bacteria that have grown resistant to traditional antibiotics. Superbugs could kill more people than cancer by 2050 if left unchecked, according to a 2014 report issued by the United Kingdom’s government.

More than two-thirds of new antibiotics come from soil bacteria or fungi. But since a small sample contains thousands of species of bacteria — and most of the antibiotics they produce are toxic to humans — it requires significant time, labor, and persistence to isolate effective antibiotic producers and to test for new compounds. With the prospects of profitability lacking, pharmaceutical companies have shied away from developing new antibiotics to focus on more lucrative drugs.

Enter Tiny Earth, an initiative based at the UW’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID). Rouse’s biology students are just a sampling of the nearly 10,000 students across 41 states and 14 countries who are mining soil to solve the superbug problem.

“Antibiotic resistance is one of the main threats to global health and security, and the students have potential to discover new antibiotics to fill the void that currently exists,” says Jo Handelsman PhD’84, director of WID and founder of the initiative.

Each semester, thousands of students around the world dig into the soil in their backyards, farm fields, stream beds, and forest floors. Just like the UW students, they learn the techniques they need to identify new species and compounds. Along with building a database of new antibiotics with medical potential, Tiny Earth is addressing another looming global crisis: a shortage of students pursuing careers in science.

“One of the best ways to learn is to engage in science actively and to do research so that the thrill of discovery drives the learning process,” says Handelsman, who first developed the program in 2012 at Yale University. She saw too many first- and second-year undergraduates dropping out of the sciences and wanted to reverse the trend by offering hands-on research that pulls in techniques and ideas from disciplines such as ecology, genetics, and molecular biology. For students, it’s a galvanizing introduction to laboratory science: they learn new skills while solving real problems.

The UW introductory biology students spent last spring diluting their soil samples, culturing and isolating bacteria, and profiling the genomes of anti- biotic-producing microbes. Along the way, they made hypotheses about what they might find, learned and selected techniques, and synthesized their findings, all in the hope of discovering new antibiotic compounds. While the samples await final analysis, the initiative is betting on the odds that more participation will increase the chances of unique discovery.

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Reckoning with History Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:26 +0000 People walk past a decorative wall in the Memorial Union

Bryce Richter

Between 1919 and 1926, two UW student organizations took the name Ku Klux Klan, and a report delving into that era of campus history “does not make for comfortable reading, nor should it,” says Chancellor Rebecca Blank.

In the wake of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville last fall, Blank appointed a study group to research the organizations and their connection to the national KKK. She also asked members of the group, which included UW history professors, to advise her on how the university can respond to this painful history.

The group’s report, released in April, found that the campus community in the early 1920s did not question the presence of two organizations bearing the KKK name, including one that was affiliated with the national white supremacist group Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The report also detailed what Blank calls “shameful examples” of the UW community’s treatment of black and Jewish students and of Native Americans, who were excluded from the student body during that era.

“The history the UW needs to confront was not the aberrant work of a few individuals but a pervasive culture of racial and religious bigotry, casual and unexamined in its prevalence, in which exclusion and indignity were routine, sanctioned in the institution’s daily life, and unchallenged by its leaders,” the report says.

The study group also considered the question of renaming campus spaces. But members decided that, first and foremost, the university needs to take more substantive action to address the past and reinvest in institutional change. “We want our collective reckoning with this history to consist of a great deal more than the purging of unpleasant reminders,” the report says.

However, the Wisconsin Union Council, which governs Memorial Union, voted in August to change the names of the Porter Butts Art Gallery and the Fredric March Play Circle — named for the union’s first director and the Oscar-winning actor, respectively. Both men belonged to an interfraternity society that used the Ku Klux Klan name in the early 1920s but was not affiliated with the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

The surviving family members of Butts publicly supported the move, which council members said would allow the Union to fulfill its mission by being more welcoming to students of all backgrounds. Butts ’24, MA’36 worked for inclusivity later in his life, including his refusal to allow segregated groups to use Wisconsin Union spaces. And in the 1950s, March ’20 fought persecution of Hollywood artists, many of them Jewish, by the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Union council plans to acknowledge the professional achievements of Butts in another way at Memorial Union.

In response to the study group report, the UW has committed up to $1 million to research and install a public history project “that will document and share the voices of those on campus who endured, fought, and overcame prejudice” throughout its history, Blank says. The university will also fund a proposal to hire a new faculty member in four progams: Afro-American Studies, American Indian Studies, Chican@/Latin@ Studies, and Asian American Studies.

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Lake Invaders Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:09 +0000 Graphical illustration of the United States showing the spread of zebra mussels through the Great Lakes

Map: Bergserg/Istock; Illustration By Danielle Lawry

“It would be hard to design a better invasive species delivery system than the Great Lakes overseas freighter,” journalist Dan Egan writes in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes — this year’s selection for Go Big Read, UW–Madison’s common reading program. Egan’s page-turning narrative details how zebra and quagga mussels native to the Caspian Sea came to wreak environmental havoc: disrupting the aquatic food chain, fueling deadly algae blooms, and clogging intake pipes. Their “front door” to the Great Lakes is the St. Lawrence Seaway, which, beginning in 1959, gave ships from around the world access to 8,000 miles of U.S. and Canadian interior coastline. As freighters travel along the system of locks, they take on cargo and empty ballast tanks of water picked up in foreign ports — releasing small plants and animals from the ocean along with it. Invasive species have also sneaked out the “back door” of the Great Lakes, by way of the Chicago canal linked to the Mississippi River basin. Quagga mussels, called “the STD of the sea,” have found their way west to Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States.

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Bridge Builder Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 After fetching ketchup for fries and plastic utensils, the group settles in for lunch around a table at Union South near the College of Engineering campus. Conversation flows easily as students share updates about how fall semester — now just a few weeks old — is going, which classes are favorites, and how summer internships influenced longer-term plans. The chatter is frequently punctuated by laughter.

You’d never guess that the meal’s host attended college several decades earlier than these students, or that he did so under significantly different circumstances. He has an admirable way of setting aside differences and coaxing out similarities.

• • •

Rod Hassett ’62 excels at making connections. It’s a skill he has brought to lunch tables and conference room tables since deciding — after a nudge from his father early in his college pursuits — that engineering would be a good fit. Engineers analyze problems and suggest solutions within parameters that include affordability and safety, enthusiastically completing complex puzzles while the rest of us may only see the pieces. These specialized skills came naturally to Hassett throughout his lengthy career at Strand Associates, a Madison engineering firm.

After retiring from Strand in 2002, he called upon his knack for mentorship, joining the UW faculty as an adjunct professor and, for 13 years, teaching the capstone design course, which challenges engineering students to tackle real-life projects.

Along the way, Hassett had been nagged by an industry dilemma that couldn’t be solved with carefully designed bridges constructed of steel and concrete. How could a profession heavily represented by white men adequately address the problems found in a broad range of communities and demographics?

“We have huge engineering problems to solve over the next 50 years,” he says, adding that it’s essential to include a diverse societal representation to solve them.

“Diverse groups are going to make smarter decisions than like-minded groups,” Hassett continues. “Those voices needed to be at the table. And many of the problems that we need solved are in the inner cities. There’s no one better to work with the people in the inner cities than the people who grew up there.”

• • •

Hassett knew exactly where to find young people who could be encouraged to follow in his footsteps from the inner city to UW–Madison’s College of Engineering. He graduated from Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1958, just prior to the city’s dramatic shift in demographics. From 1960 to 1970, Milwaukee’s African American population increased by 68 percent, due in part to migration from Chicago and the South. At Rufus King, minority enrollment slowly grew, reaching one-third by 1964; today, minorities represent 79 percent of the school’s student body.

Now called Rufus King International, the high school’s nearly 1,500 students take challenging precollege coursework. U.S. News & World Report includes it in the magazine’s rankings of nationally recognized high schools. Eighty-five percent of the 2015 graduating class planned to attend college, with another 10 percent intending to enroll in two-year institutions — a significant change from Hassett’s student days.

“My dad was really pro-education, but he came out of the Depression and World War II, and he didn’t have a lot of formal education,” Hassett says. “I grew up in an area where probably less than half of the kids went to college when they got out of high school, but there was no question I was going to college. Education has always been part of my life.”

As Hassett pondered how to bring more diversity into his field, he talked with Jeff Russell, then chair of civil and environmental engineering and today dean of the Division of Continuing Studies. Together they decided to recruit students to be engineers “like Barry Alvarez recruits football players,” Hassett recalls. He worked with the UW Foundation in 2006 to establish a scholarship program specifically designed to support Rufus King students who had an interest in becoming engineers. He provides scholarships for a student’s first two years, and the College of Engineering supports additional years. So far, 15 Rufus King graduates have been named Hassett Scholars. Nine have graduated from the UW — a track record that makes Hassett especially proud — and are now pursuing careers ranging from jet pilot training with the U.S. Air Force to working as a computer programmer at Google. The other six scholars are currently enrolled.

“The scholarship is a means to solving a problem,” Hassett says. “Now there’s a steady stream of kids coming from King. We’re solving a problem one person at a time.”

• • • Coty Weathersby x’19 was among the students having lunch with Hassett at The Sett in Union South last fall. Now a fifth-year senior majoring in chemical engineering, Weathersby supplements her course work with time in a campus research lab. Her current research centers on analyzing bacteria in wastewater; during a stint in a UC–Berkeley lab in summer 2017, she explored harmful contaminants in groundwater.

Although she’d been juggling honor societies and athletics at Rufus King and leaning toward majoring in chemistry, Weathersby says her selection as a Hassett Scholar spurred her to change plans. And she marvels at the interest Hassett shows in the students. “I never thought I’d actually get to see the face behind the scholarship,” she says. “When I first received the award, Rod came to the ceremony [at Rufus King]. That in itself was exciting because he got to meet my sisters and my mom.”

She adds, “I remember getting an email from him at the end of my freshman year that said, ‘Congratulations. I’m proud of you!’ ”

“That individual touch is just very, very rare,” says Mary Fitzpatrick, director of the College of Engineering’s Diversity Affairs Office. “Rod offers mentoring as a seasoned professional. I would even say Rod has mentored us. He continues to make sure that we understand the intent and the goals [of his scholarship].”

Hassett Scholars are part of the college’s larger Leaders in Engineering Excellence and Diversity program, which is designed to support populations that are historically underrepresented in the field, including low-income or first-generation students, women, and students of color. The college takes steps to make sure incoming students are aware of scholarships for which they can apply.

“Engineering is very competitive, and the climate of engineering can be harsh at times,” Fitzpatrick says. “Our message is that you all can succeed, and we’re going to help you succeed. Yes, you have to do the work yourself, but you’ve got a net that’s going to work with you.” The diversity office provides a comfortable space where students can come to hang out and talk between classes, hold math study sessions, and gather over a meal.

Brian Núñez, former director of the Engineering Summer Program and now the director of career advising and wellness at the UW’s medical school, remembers the first time he met Weathersby. “She gave me her résumé and said she was going to run a company one day,” he says with a smile.

That company may well be in Weathersby’s future, but in the meantime, she is honing her leadership skills. She serves as the academic excellence chair for the campus chapter of the National Society for Black Engineers, and she attended the organization’s conference during her sophomore year. “I remember walking into the convention hall, and it was filled with so many black engineers and engineers of color, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ I just don’t see that on TV. I don’t see that in the media, so it was great. It’s a reminder in times when I’m struggling … that there are a lot of other engineers who felt the same thing, but they’ve made it.”

She was one of three students who helped start the UW chapter of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers. The chapter’s members — numbering about 15 undergraduate and graduate students — do volunteer work and sponsor professional development events.

Weathersby’s motivation for involvement in the organizations, she says, is “making sure future Hassett Scholars have these resources.” She attributes “caffeine and time management” — and learning to say no — to her ability to juggle classes, research, student organizations, and tutoring.

“I don’t want to do something and not do it well,” she says.

Weathersby, who is eyeing graduate school to earn a master’s degree and, possibly, a doctorate, expresses admiration for UW faculty members who both teach and conduct research.

But for now, she emphasizes the powerful force of community. That, she believes, has been the greatest gift of all, in some ways eclipsing the financial support. She keeps in close contact with other Hassett Scholars, including those who have graduated.

Hassett makes sure that current students have ongoing support from each other by scheduling lunch sessions twice a year. “I really want to make sure that the older kids, the more senior people, are sharing their experiences with the younger students,” he says. “They can help each other so much.”

• • •

During last October’s lunch conversation, Hassett encourages each student to tell him what’s new. Weathersby describes her summer at UC–Berkeley. Devin Lafford x’19, a computer engineering student, details an internship at a company that designs medical devices. George Akpan x’19 tells the group that he wants to focus on wind power in his career, plans that earn an enthusiastic “Good for you!” from Hassett. Alexus Edwards x’21 says she’s leaning toward the biomedical field and recounts her summer as an intern with the Milwaukee fire department unit based at the airport.

Hassett nods, smiles, and asks more questions, easily sliding into the mentorship role he enjoys. The topic shifts to Park Street, one of the main thoroughfares to the UW campus, and he tells the students, “Here you had this gorgeous campus, but everyone coming there had to go down this ugly street.” He notes that his firm worked on a plan to give the location new life.

“When you do something like this as an engineer, you have a vision,” he says. “I could see that this was going to be the gateway to the campus.

“That’s one thing that’s nice about being an engineer,” he continues. “You get involved in things like that and you put your footprints in the sand. Early on you can see something, you have a vision for something, and you get it done. And then the rest of the world catches up. You just smile and walk on.”

As the scholars grab their backpacks and head off to their next classes or study groups, Hassett calls out, “Good seeing you guys!” With a smile, he adds, “See you in May — you’ll be a lot smarter by then.”

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Bryson Williams Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:08 +0000 Portrait of Bryson Williams wearing a red shirt printed with words "On Wisconsin"

Williams was heavily recruited by Nebraska after making a verbal commitment to the Badgers.

If Bryson Williams x’22 were a Nebraska Cornhusker, it would be hard to blame him.

The other Sea of Red flows through his veins: he was born in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska, to a family of devoted Cornhuskers, and he played high school football just a 10-minute drive from Memorial Stadium.

The UW freshman nose tackle was also priority number one for Nebraska’s new head coach, Scott Frost, a longtime Lincoln legend. Frost, the quarterback of Nebraska’s 1997 national championship team, returned to his alma mater with massive fanfare after coaching the NCAA’s only undefeated team last season, the University of Central Florida (UCF).

In early December, on the same day UCF won its conference championship game and less than an hour after Frost’s hiring leaked online, Williams received a phone call from a familiar voice. It was Frost, who had recruited Williams at UCF. Seemingly out of nowhere (the Cornhuskers’ previous head coach told Williams, point blank, that he would not receive an offer from the university), Nebraska was now interested.

“The next day, before he even got to his house in Lincoln, he’s at my house,” Williams says. A visibly exhausted Frost had come directly from his introductory press conference. “My mom was kind of starstruck. … He just told me he wanted me on the team.”

What should have been a dream come true was actually a source of internal conflict: five months prior, Williams had verbally committed to the UW. Because he couldn’t sign an official letter of intent until late December, his commitment to the Badgers was theoretical — at least to some. Williams quickly became a celebrity of sorts in Lincoln, with media, family, friends, and strangers all inquiring about his final decision.

“My mom had a lady follow her into the bathroom [to ask about me],” he says, laughing. “My mom hates when I bring that up, but that’s how passionate Nebraska fans really are.”

The recruiting process wasn’t always so eventful for Williams, who was considered a three-star (out of five) prospect. He attended a few summer camps in high school, where he first caught the attention of South Dakota and South Dakota State — his first two college offers. Months passed until he received his first offer from a major program (Kansas State). Eventually, as he developed into his 6′2″, 300-pound frame as a high-school senior, he received offers from nearly 20 schools, ranging from the UW and Iowa, to Virginia Tech and Duke, to Princeton and Yale. But the Big Ten was squarely his top priority.

The UW offered Williams a scholarship last June. Within a couple weeks, he visited campus — with stops at Camp Randall and the Terrace — and verbally committed, citing strong academics and a fast-developing relationship with the coaching staff.

“After taking all these visits, you kind of feel what’s real and what’s not real,” Williams says. “Certain coaches will try to sell you on the perfect scenario and tell you, ‘You come here, you’ll get this starting job, and after you graduate, you’ll have this, this, and this.’ Well, things don’t always work out like that. What if I get injured? How’s the education? How’s the life outside of football?”

In mid-December, with the sudden weight of his hometown on his shoulders and a scribbled pros-and-cons chart at his side, Williams announced on Twitter that he was sticking with his original commitment: “I want to be remembered [as] a man of my word,” he wrote.

“My heart, my head — they finally agreed,” he says now. “I haven’t switched my mind at all since.”

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Alnisa Allgood Mon, 27 Aug 2018 17:33:07 +0000 Alnisa Allgood

Courtesy Montae Creative

When Alnisa Allgood moved to Madison in 1991, she didn’t have much of a plan. She had studied chemical engineering at Penn State University on an Air Force ROTC scholarship, expecting to serve. But then she came out as gay. Discharge papers arrived before active duty called.

Allgood hitched a ride to Madison at a friend’s recommendation. She attended a meeting for the 10 Percent Society, a gay student organization, and learned about a years-long struggle to start an LGBT center on campus. Allgood, now an executive director of two nonprofit organizations in Madison, combined her passion for problem-solving and helping others to open the university’s LGBT center in 1992.

Over the years, the center has changed in structure (from a student-run organization to an administrative unit), location (from off campus, to the Memorial Union, to the Red Gym), and name (newly the Gender and Sexuality Campus Center). But its core purpose — to be a space for support and community — remains the same.

What inspired you to start the LGBT campus center?

The 10 Percent Society and other LGBT organizations were trying to get the LGBT center [started] the same way as the multicultural center — approved by the regents and funded through the [UW] System. I thought that was always a good thing to work toward, but that it could be another 20 years. I had read about other possibilities for funding a center, a mixture between student segregated fees and grants. So that’s what I did.

In an oral history with UW Archives, you said, “The first reaction was to go into protest mode as opposed to going into planning mode.” What did you mean by that?

Students had been fighting for [regents’ approval] for over 10 years. But just having a campus center would be a win, right? I went to the dean of students [Mary Rouse] and GLEMA, which was the Gay and Lesbian Ethnic Minority Association. I brought them my sketch outline of how it could get up and running. It moved pretty rapidly.

What were some of the original services?

We started talking to various professors and instructors about including [LGBT materials] into their curriculum. Back then it was important because it was hard to access good materials that had new research — not old theories of homosexuality being a mental illness. We also offered lesbian and gay fiction [in our lending library] so that students and the community could start feeling more comfortable with themselves.

Did you receive any public backlash when it opened?

When we were going after the student segregated fees, there were people who argued against us [with] things like, ‘Oh, money shouldn’t be spent on that type of sinful lifestyle.’ … We also had blackout blinds because some people were concerned about identity and people looking into the windows and trying to see who was part of the group. So we came up with protocols — you might even tell people to show up before the announced time, so that somebody’s not sitting there waiting to capture pictures.

The center seemed ahead of its time in terms of wider inclusivity. Why?

There weren’t a lot resources for lesbian and gay students of color. We wanted to make sure that the campus center was not just increasing LGBT visibility, but also [supporting] ethnic minorities and other disenfranchised communities within the LGBT community.

With growing acceptance of the LGBT community, does a center serve different needs today?

There are still people looking for a safe space to come out, though I would assume that’s drastically reduced. But I think there’s one thing that LGBT centers can still be of service [for]: a connection point — a reflection that there are other people in the world like me, and there are other people who are willing to be our allies in whatever the struggles are.

Interview conducted, edited, and condensed by Preston Schmitt ’14

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Audio Philes Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:42 +0000 People seated in chairs face each and operate audio recording equipment

Sarah Morton

Four years ago, Jeremy Morris launched his podcast class at the UW — and the word podcast wasn’t even in the title of the communication arts course.

Then Serial debuted. The true-crime monster hit was part of a wave of new podcasts that turned the tide, to the point that last year, Nielsen reported a full 40 percent of the U.S. population — or 112 million people — had listened to a podcast.

Now, in the midst of the golden age of podcasts, the course has a new name — Sound Cultures: Podcasting and Music — and increased demand. Morris, an associate professor of media and cultural studies, exposes students to a wide variety of podcasts and gives them hands-on experience with manipulating audio.

“I like to remind them that the software is going to change,” says Morris, who produced a music podcast as a graduate student and recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to make podcasts easier for scholars and the public to research. “It’s more about understanding the role sound can play.”

From a first assignment of making a sound “playlist” of their day to the final project creating a pilot episode of a new podcast, Morris hopes students critically analyze how sound constructs their everyday lives and the ways it is linked to issues of age, race, class, gender, history, and culture.

“I want students to think about why they hear what they hear,” he says. “Sounds aren’t as universal as we think they are.”

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Surprise Package Wed, 23 May 2018 14:24:08 +0000 First-year students link arms and sing 'Varsity' at the end of the Chancellor's Convocation for New Students, a Wisconsin Welcome event

First-year students link arms and sing ‘Varsity’ at the end of the Chancellor’s Convocation for New Students, a Wisconsin Welcome event. Jeff Miller

For Mackenzie Straub x’22, the good news just kept coming. Shortly after being accepted to UW–Madison, she learned that her tuition and fees would be covered.

The high school senior from Sister Bay, Wisconsin, is among students who will benefit from Bucky’s Tuition Promise beginning this fall. The major new initiative pledges to cover four years of tuition and segregated fees for any incoming Wisconsin freshman whose family’s annual household adjusted gross income is $56,000 or less — roughly the state’s median family income.

Transfer students from Wisconsin who meet the same criteria will receive two years of tuition and segregated fees.

“We are 100 percent grateful,” says Straub’s mom, Carol Straub, a substitute school teacher who lost her husband to cancer four years ago. “This takes away so much of the financial stress.”

In announcing the initiative in February, Chancellor Rebecca Blank called it another step in making the state’s flagship public university affordable for Wisconsin students. “Our goal is to ensure that anyone who is admitted can afford to be a Badger,” she said.

Eligibility is based solely on one line from a family’s federal tax return. Only income, not assets, will be used to determine eligibility, an important consideration in an agricultural state where many farm families may have high reported assets but low incomes, Blank says.

“We want this effort to be a boon for families in smaller towns and rural parts of the state,” she says.

The initiative is expected to cover more than 800 students in each incoming class of freshmen and transfer students. Funding will come from private gifts and other institutional resources, not state tax dollars.

Getting to share the good news with students and high school guidance counselors has become “one of the best parts of my job,” says Greg Offerman, who oversees outreach and advising efforts for the Office of Student Financial Aid. “A few people thought it was some sort of joke circulating on the internet. They thought it was too good to be true.”

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Mystery Solved Thu, 22 Feb 2018 19:13:08 +0000 The List Issue featured four University Archives images in search of captions. Readers answered the call and helped identify three of them, with the first image (below) generating the most replies.

Black and white photograph of two people in medieval armor sparring as crowd watches outdoors.

The dueling knights were part of an event sponsored by the Society for Creative Anachronism, according to alumni. Memories varied as to what year the image was captured, but responses narrowed the time frame to the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Nighttime black and white photo of two people blocking traffic while holding either end of large sign that reads "Streak to impeach!!"

This photo was likely taken outside Sellery Hall in fall 1973, wrote Larry Classen ’77, JD’80, noting, “Streaking was a rather popular cultural phenomenon at that time, as was anti-Nixon sentiment. I have no recollection of whether this was organized in any way or how we learned about it. But at some point, word spread that there were streakers outside.”

Black and white photo of man sitting in front of bookshelf, wearing a hat and boots and holding a parrot.

Friends and former classmates of Ben Jeffrey Madoff ’71 identified him as the mystery man in this image. Madoff launched his own clothing line in Madison and now leads a video-production company in New York City serving clients such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren. “That is me in the picture,” Madoff confirms. “I’m real; the parrot isn’t.” He says Jeffrey Jayson ’72 captured the image inside a campus library in 1968 or 1969. “I don’t remember where I found the parrot, but I had it for a few years,” Madoff says. “It was low maintenance. Never ate.”

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Get Happy Thu, 22 Feb 2018 19:13:08 +0000 Photo illustration of stack of dollar bills with yellow smiley face over center

ISTOCK/N.B. Rinehart, Illustrator

As sleepy students filter in for an 8:50 a.m. class, UW consumer science clinical professor Christine Whelan scans a playlist on her laptop in search of a song. She settles on the soul classic “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers, and lets it play before beginning her morning lecture in the School of Human Ecology building.

“It’s not even 9 a.m., and we’re going to talk about obituaries,” she says, before eventually challenging students to write their own.

It might feel like a stark shift in mood, but the task is typical of the self-examination required in Consuming Happiness — more informally known as “the happy class” — which focuses on the relationship between well-being and money.

“The argument we are making in this course is, yes, you can buy happiness — if you spend your money right,” Whelan says.

How we spend our money is a window into our values, but the two don’t always match up. To illustrate, Whelan proposes students play what she calls an “evil” game: paper clip a note listing their values to their credit or debit cards, which they must confront every time they pull them out to buy something.

The course also draws on social science research on spending that reveals some key principles for how to spend your way to happiness. A big one is buying experiences, such as travel or concerts, which brings more satisfaction than buying stuff. “When we tell our story, who we are, we talk about our experiences,” Whelan says. Another strategy is to “make it a treat,” which means you’ll savor that morning latte much more if you buy one a week rather than one every morning. Research also suggests the benefits of delayed gratification: paying for something, such as a trip, upfront to separate the pain of its cost from the pleasure of enjoying it.

Finding purpose is another key course theme. “If you achieve a goal without having a purpose, it is empty,” Whelan says. Happiness — and a meaningful life — come from using our natural gifts to live out our values and help others. To explore that idea, she touches on philosophies rooted in sources ranging from Christianity to Confucianism (the class is cross-listed with religious studies) and digs into scientific research. Studies have shown that people who live with purpose are healthier and make $10,000 to $15,000 more a year, Whelan says.

“Consuming happiness is a path to figuring out what you care about, what matters,” Whelan says.

The course also examines the $12 billion self-improvement industry, with a reading list that includes self-help titles such as The Power of Positive Thinking and The Secret, as well as academic critiques of the theories they espouse. Students even follow some of the books’ advice to determine whether it can work in their own lives. One observation a student shared during the final day of the class: “The Secret is a joke.”

But there are more fruitful takeaways, too, such as this one: “Happiness won’t just come to you; you have to work for it.”

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