2011 Through the Lens of Madison
by Elise Swanson | UW-Madison
2011 was a pretty big year all around, especially here in Madison. (Although, let’s be honest, anyone would say that about their own city.) This time last year, we had snow in Wisconsin–there were months upon months of snow angels, snowmen, snowball fights, skiing, sledding, and endless reasons to drink hot chocolate. Then there were the months upon months of wind, ice, and the typical Madison rage at the fact that winter even exists.
Yet beyond our own city, in January we saw horrific scenes of the shooting in Tucson of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, the floods in Brazil, and the beginnings of the uprising and ensuing crackdown in Libya, following the successful protests in Tunisia. We felt these events, but from a distance. I was on a service trip in the US Virgin Islands, rebuilding trails in the national park on St. John Island, so the news was slow to reach me. As for most college students, winter break was a time to sleep, stop working in overdrive every second, and breathe easily without the specter of an exam looming ahead.
In February, the Packers won the Superbowl, and the Capitol was lit up in green and gold. The Egyptian people won a huge victory for self determination and democracy, forcing President Mubarak to step down. The wave of the Arab Spring continued to wash over the region, with protests erupting in Bahrain.
In Madison, another battle began, also in defense of rights. Citizens from every part of the state and from every professional background came to the Capitol in the tens of thousands to protest Governor Scott Walker’s budget repair bill that would eliminate public workers’ ability to collectively bargain. The budgets sparked an exciting time in Madison, despite the anxiety caused by the predicted consequences of the proposed measures.
Students were engaged in the political process, and excited about the prospect of influencing policy. Professors and TAs talked about the issues with students, provoking thoughtful discussions. Protesting was exhilarating—being a part of a crowd that large, voices raised together in hopeful pursuit of one goal… it’s inspiring. I think it’s safe to say that at this moment, we in Wisconsin were all inadvertently ignoring the news from the rest of the country, and even from the world, focused on the battle in our home. So when we finally looked around once more, and realized that the national attention was on us, it was mind-boggling. Looking at pictures of the huge crowds of protestors, and knowing you were one of the tiny specks of color online… it reaffirmed a sense of belonging to something bigger, and that feeling is rather indescribable.
Of course, the early spring wasn’t just filled with historic protests in Madison. There was the terrible earthquake in Japan, and the resultant nuclear disaster in Fukushima. There was NATO engagement in Libya, and continuing bloodshed in that struggle for freedom. There were protests in Yemen, a country of huge significance in terms of combating terrorism, still tottering on the brink of instability. Prince William married Kate Middleton in April, and hundreds of students at Madison got up at a ridiculously early hour to watch the event. Osama bin Laden was killed in May, provoking different reactions from Madison students—from raucous celebrations to a more somber realization that, although the death was necessary and a victory, the death of another human being should not be the cause of celebration.
As spring melted into summer, the events whizzed by: recalls, Gabrielle Giffords slowly recovering, Rod Blagojevich’s trial, the continuing Arab Spring, NATO’s actions in Libya, and Congress’ frustrating inability to resolve its debt debate, avoid defaulting on its loans and prevent a credit downgrade.
In August, Wisconsin staged the first round of recall elections aimed mainly against those legislators who had supported the governor’s anti-collective bargaining plan. All of this was watched by students in Madison, albeit with the distraction of finals and then the freedom of summer. Summer internships, classes, jobs, sleeping in until noon every day… yes, summer is a glorious time for college students.
Then it was back to the grindstone, with books, lectures, exams, too little sleep and too much coffee. The Occupy movement began to sweep across the nation, and we all wondered what the outcome would be of these organized actions that attracted large crowds, yet didn’t have many articulated goals. The spirit of protest had been imbued within Madison’s students, however, and when our holistic admissions policy was attacked, we stood up as one and spoke out in defense of diversity on our campus.
The Eurozone crisis blew wide open, and the economic repercussions were felt in every corner. Steve Jobs died, and we all lost a technological and entrepreneurial visionary. President Obama ordered the last troops out of Iraq, and we cheered for the end of the war, but also continued to look nervously towards the future of the new democracy. Kim Jong Il died, leaving the world questioning what will happen next in the reclusive country he led for so long.
2011 was a momentous year, in ways both good and bad. And while 2012 is a vast, hopeful unknown, we can make a few predictions. First, although the Badgers lost to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, we’ve got a bright future ahead. Second, the Packers are in the playoffs, and are poised for another fantastic finish. And, as students, we’re going to procrastinate too much, drink too much coffee, and doze off once or twice in lecture. We’ll also do research, go on service trips, and grow into better people. We’ll experience another year, and create and witness moments of change, big and small, local and global.Elise Swanson is a NGJ Voices Contributor. She is majoring in Political Science and English, and hopes to join the Foreign Service one day. A native of northern Wisconsin, she hopes one day to retire to Switzerland, and pursue various, yet-unknown ambitions.