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The Night Before Graduation

A reflection on the night before graduation by Mark Bennett ’13.

Group of 4 UW students enjoying a thunderstorm sunset.

The night before my graduation, I went out with friends for a few final drinks on State Street. On the long walk home to my apartment, I decided to detour to the top of Observatory Hill. It was a warm night in mid-May, just after two in the morning. I walked out to the overlook and stared into the night sky reflecting in Lake Mendota.

I thought about who I was when I first arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and who I am now. I reflected on the four years that I had spent on campus and the memories that I had made, both in Madison and beyond. I thought about all the people along the way.

It was fitting to find myself back on Observatory Hill. It was where I first made friends at the UW. A group from my floor commandeered a few rolling carts from the residence halls and headed the top of the hill. They took turns riding down the steep sidewalk. I was reluctant and denied the thrill ride, despite encouragement from my new friends. I think I would have tried it now. But, despite my timidity, our friendships stuck.

It was with those same friends that I first transformed a dining hall tray into a sled on Observatory Hill. While studying in the basement of Sullivan Hall one December night in 2009, word quickly spread that school was off the next day due to a snowstorm. Like reckless children, we dropped our homework, ran to grab trays, and spent hours on the icy hill. The rest of the night, we all crammed into a room with hot drinks and a movie.

Elizabeth Waters Hall, where I spent my sophomore year, also sat on Observatory Hill. My room overlooked the lake, and I was welcomed every day with the early morning sun through my window. At the bottom of the hill, Lake Mendota was the site of late night lake jumps, lazy afternoon swims, sailboat rides, canoeing adventures, and winter walks across the frozen ice. Jutting out into the lake was Picnic Point, where we built bonfires and got lost exploring the woods. On days when stress or anger mounted, nothing was better than a long walk on the lakeshore path.
At the bottom of the hill is Carson’s, home to the best pizza in Madison. Behind it is the Washburn Observatory, where I had once gazed upon the moon, Mars, and Saturn’s rings through a century-old telescope.

Observatory Hill was where I sat under a tree during my freshman year, reading Chinua Achebe.

Observatory Hill was the last obstacle in a late-night journey through a blizzard after a shift at the Daily Cardinal offices.

Observatory Hill was where an unforgettable weeklong sophomore-year spring break trip ended.

Observatory Hill was where, like 10-year-olds, friends chased each other and played Frisbee keep-away — grass stains and all.

Observatory Hill was my favorite spot to bring prospective students on campus tours. On even the worst of days, it was marvelous. On the best days — those fall days when the weather was still warm and the sailboats were still out, but the trees had changed to orange and yellow — it was indescribable beauty that wowed any guest. And it never failed to wow me, too.

Of course, these places and memories were only a small slice of my UW experience. But that night, it was just me, my thoughts, and a few thousand stars — enough to bring a tear to my eye. An important chapter in my life was closing, but I would be eternally grateful for those moments and the people I shared them with.

I took one final look out at Lake Mendota, turned around, and walked down the hill.

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