Elon holds 121st Commencement exercises

Calling on Elon’s newest alumni to serve a nation “that provides us the opportunities we far too often take for granted,” U.S. Navy Vice Adm. William E. Gortney ’77 spoke of courage, integrity and balance on Saturday morning in Commencement exercises attended by thousands of relatives and friends who gathered Under the Oaks to celebrate the Class of 2011’s academic journey.

“Make excellence your trademark," said Vice Adm. William Gortney '77, director of the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and Elon's 2011 Commencement speaker. "Find your passion and do it better than anyone else.”

University leaders conferred 1,128 bachelor’s degrees on a cloudless morning with temperatures that hovered in the upper 70s. Before they received their diplomas, graduates listened the brief remarks from several speakers that concluded with Gortney’s Commencement address, titled “The Secrets to Guaranteed Wealth.”

Gortney, the director of the Joint Staff and the Pentagon’s official spokesman for the U.S. military operations in Libya, as well as the face of the U.S. Navy two years ago during the rescue of the Maersk Alabama ship captain taken hostage by Somali pirates, welcomed his audience to the ceremony and described the humility he experienced when asked by the senior class to serve as Commencement speaker.

“Your request honors the nearly 2.3 million soldiers, sailors, airman and Marines serving in today’s armed forces, who have been at war for nearly 10 years, and who have never lacked our nation’s undying support and gratitude through all those years,” he said. “And I am confident your support will never falter, for I can speak with authority. Their faith in you and our nation will never falter as well.”

After recounting his own experience as a college graduate, and how men and women in uniform were once treated with less respect by youth than today’s college generation exhibits, Gortney outlined seven attributes for graduates to consider to “live as good a life as anyone”

Integrity. “No one can take your integrity from you. You must give it away,” he said. “The importance of your core values can never be over stated.”

Courage. “There will be times when you will be tested and you will not have the luxury of choosing when that test will occur,” Gortney said, noting that courage is more than physical. It’s also moral. “Therefore, do what you feel is the right course of action, which may not always be the easy, or popular, course of action.”

Judgment. “You can tell a lot about a person by the friends one keeps,” he said, “because you choose your friends, and your friends do the same in return.”

Faculty greeted the Class of 2011 as graduates processed to the lawn in front of West residence hall on May 21, 2011, for Elon University's 121st Commencement exercises.

Passion. “Don’t go through life hating what you do,” Gortney said. “Find something that you have a passion for – and do it.”

Excellence. “Make excellence your trademark. Find your passion and do it better than anyone else.”

Balance. With work, family, physical health, mental health and spiritual health all competing for attention, students should “establish a marathon pace, balancing these five elements,” he said. “There will be times when you have to sprint, which will force you to reorder the priority of these elements. It is critical to put balance back into your marathon pace, once the sprint is no longer required.”

Service. “I urge you to volunteer your time to church, school, Scouts or youth sports,” Gortney said. “Give back to the society that defines us, the society that makes us who we are and that gives us the freedoms we cherish.”

Graduates and their families also heard from Christopher P. Martin ’78, president of the Elon Alumni Board, and Michael Nowak, president of the Class of 2011.

Martin implored graduates to remain connected with their alma mater by volunteering to host alumni events, or serving as a mentor to younger students, or by simply staying in touch with the university and the alumni association.

“Your connection to Elon is special and unique to you,” he said. “Thank your parents, family and friends who are here with you today. You’ve made them so proud.”

The university conferred 1,128 undergraduate degrees at Commencement.

Nowak listed ways the university has changed in the four years since the Class of 2011 stepped foot on campus as freshmen. He noted high rankings for the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business, the completion of Alumni Field House, and the establishment of a School of Health Sciences, among other developments, that the class has witnessed during its studies.

“Change is good,” he said. “Not only is it good, it’s necessary. It’s what keeps us striving to be better.

“As we enter the ‘real world,’ know that Elon has prepared us as global leaders. … Our achievements united us right here, right now, under these oaks. Enjoy this feeling. Internalize it.”

In his charge to graduates to conclude the ceremony, Elon University President Leo M. Lambert thanked the new alumni for their dedication to academic excellence and their role in making Elon a better university during their time at the university.

Lambert implored them to use their education as force for good.

“The world can afford to have none of you on the sidelines. Too much is hanging in the balance,” he said. “We need your spirit of entrepreneurship, your creativity, and an innovative vision of tomorrow that your generation can forge. We need your minds—so well prepared at Elon—at work. My best hope for the future is you.”

He then shared with graduates the meaning behind a gift that each would receive moments later from the university: A young oak sapling. “Plant your young tree, and let it serve as a reminder that you have been prepared by your education to be a strong force for good in the world,” he said. “Remember too that we are the Phoenix. We have faith in the promise of renewal and of new beginnings.

“Long live Elon!”