Class of 2019 encouraged to use 'tool kit' to find their passions, take risks
Award-winning photojournalist Al Drago '15 delivered the commencement address on Friday, May 24, as more than 1,400 Elon students became the university's newest alumni.
Gathered under the sun in front of Scott Plaza, the Class of 2019 came together one last time as Elon students on Friday for university’s 129 Commencement before leaving as the university’s newest alumni. This group of more than 1,400 students has grown close during the past four years, and will now spread out across the country and around the globe to begin new careers, command their first classrooms, pursue graduate degrees and serve nonprofit organizations.
As these graduates head into the next phases of their lives, commencement speaker Al Drago ’15, an award-winning photojournalist, offered a “tool kit” that the graduating seniors can turn to as they adapt to life after college. The skills they have acquired and the passions they have or will find will support them going forward. The next few years can be formative, Drago said.
“Today marks the moment that you are entering what could be the most exciting and rewarding years of your life,” Drago told the graduates surrounded by family, friends and Elon faculty and staff. “These will be the years when you have the least amount of obligations or baggage holding you back, which can allow you to take risks.”
Drago leveraged his extensive experience with student media while at Elon and four internships to become a contract photographer after graduation. Based in Washington, D.C. and covering the White House, Congress and national politics, Drago's work regularly appears in The New York Times. His images have also been published by the Wall Street Journal, Paris Match, TIME, Rolling Stone, NBC Nightly News, The New Yorker, ESPN and others.
At the outset of his remarks, Drago noted that he has now documented seven Elon graduations from behind the camera, including his own. From the podium, Drago proceeded to snap photos, saying, "I've never seen graduation from up here, and it's a pretty great view."
Drago's passion for journalism and photography came through in his remarks, and he encouraged the Class of 2019 to pursue their own passions, or if they have yet to discover what that passion is, to be patient. "If you don't love your new job in the first two weeks, hang in there. It will not be the end of the world," Drago encouraged. "Figure out what you like to do, and use that to help craft where you want to go next. Seek out the people and opportunities that make you truly happy, not just the ones that will get you the most likes on Instagram."
Drago drew from his own career lessons in offering his "tool kit" of advice to the class. Pointing to his photo of Michelle Obama and George W. Bush hugging that gained national exposure, Drago said capturing that photo and turning it around quickly for publication taught him to stay cool under pressure. Drago pulled advice from his experiences traveling with President Donald Trump to Iraq, exploring new social media technologies when they launched such as Snapchat and being ready to respond to capture news as it happened. From those professional experiences, Drago said he has learned to look through different lenses, to always have a bag packed and to embrace unexpected endings.
“Elon has prepared you with all the necessary tools to conquer the world," Drago said. "On graduation day, you have everything you need with you, whether you realize exactly what those tools are or not."
President Connie Ledoux Book began the commencement ceremony addressing the audience following the unexpected death on Thursday of Nicholas Kavouklis. She asked those gathered to keep Kavouklis's family, teammates, friends and others impacted by his death in their prayers, acknowledging how difficult it is to grieve the loss of a loved one. "Today is a challenge because the reality of life is raw and present, a mixture of pain and joy, of love and loss," Book said.
The Class of 2019 heard from one of their own, with Senior Class President Colton Cadarette walking them through shared memories while collectively offering a thanks to the parents and other family members who helped them get where they are today.
"My education has changed me, and I believe that I have become the person I am today because of it," Cadarette told the crowd. "As an institution, Elon produces a distinct kind of individual — one who is ready to head out into the world and change it for the better. Sitting here today are graduates who are ready to head across the globe to exercise their Elon education and make a difference no matter where they are — as account coordinator at Ketchum in L.A., as a teacher in Spain or across the U.S., as an annuity associate at Brighthouse Financial, to name just a few."
For Cadarette, it is the people who have made Elon a home to him and his classmates during the past four years. "Elon saw something in me that, in the beginning, I couldn't see in myself," Cadarette said. "It's something Elon saw in all of you, too — potential. Thank you for taking our potential and pushing to improve us each and every day. We will carry this place in our hearts as we move toward our next challenge."
2019 was a year of change for Elon’s Commencement, which has traditionally been a single ceremony that included the commencement address and awarding of diplomas with the reading of each graduate’s name.
This year, Commencement was divided into a main, morning ceremony held in front of Scott Plaza and Alamance Building that included the commencement address, and two diploma ceremonies in Schar Center, one for graduates of the Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Education, and the second for graduates from the School of Communications and the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business.
Each diploma ceremony included remarks by the deans of the schools, who celebrated the accomplishments of the graduating seniors and voiced their pride in seeing what these students have achieved and will achieve in the future. Also speaking at each ceremony was a student whose degrees spanned both schools.
Courtney Kobos encouraged her classmates to not just stand on the sidelines, but to engage themselves directly in effecting change in the world. She drew from her experiences studying in Ecuador during which she signed on to cheer a friend in a 5K, only to find herself enlisted to run in the race wearing jeans and not prepared for a run.
"We must be in the thick of the action and outside our comfort zones," Kobos implored. "We need to put ourselves in the race. We have the power to refect indifference."
At the diploma ceremony for the School of Communications and the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, Joseph Keller '19 shared how his studies have spanned the two schools, which he initially thought would be drastically different from one another. But in both, he found similarities that underscore what makes Elon unique.
"I discovered that the common thread between the two schools isn't what we're being taught, but why we're being taught," Keller said. "Whether it's business or comm, our curriculums are designed with one thing in mind, a common denominator — innovation."
Looking ahead, Keller recalled a letter he received from his father that stated simply, "Be tenacious. Never settle for comfort. "Elon has taught us to never be complacent," Keller said. "Everyone in this room is trusting us with the future. Settling for the easy way out would be a disservice to everyone who helped us get here."
In her charge to the graduates, President Book detailed the experiences Elon students acquire during their four years, such as studying abroad, internships, undergraduate research, service learning and leadership roles. Beyond awarding diplomas, commencement is about celebrating the difference that the members of the Class of 2019 have made in each other's lives, and in the lives of those in the university community.
"Because of your Elon education, you are ready, ready to be the changemakers who shape the future," Book said. "This is what Elon expects from you today, and what the world needs from you tomorrow."