Jeffrey Pugh encourages graduates to let the world change them

In his May 18 Baccalaureate address, the Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished University Professor urged the Class of 2018 to be present to those in need and listen to the lessons that are offered.

Jeffrey Pugh, the Maude Sharp Powell Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished University Professor, delivered the Baccalaureate message.
They won’t all change the world, but every member of the Class of 2018 can let the world change them.

In his Baccalaureate message that was both humorous and thought provoking, Jeffrey Pugh, the Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies and Distinguished University Professor, explained to the graduating students that the change he was referencing will come from being attentive to the person standing in front of them.

“In your lives there are going to be those right in front of you that deserve your attention,” Pugh said. “If you embrace the compassion to ask how you can make their lives better, the way others have done for you, you’ll discover a world that changes you.”

Pugh was one of several people who spoke Friday afternoon at Elon’s Baccalaureate service, a multi-faith ceremony the university holds each year to honor the graduating class, their families and the Elon community.

An influential teacher, mentor and scholar since joining Elon’s faculty in 1986, Pugh has left his mark on the Elon community. He is retiring at the end of the month. He received the Daniels-Danieley Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2000 for his work with students and was honored in 2010 with Elon’s Distinguished Scholar Award for the contributions he has made to his field and the commendation and respect he has earned from his peers. In November 2017, he was invested with the Distinguished University Professorship during a formal ceremony.

As they leave the comfort of their homes at Elon, the Class of 2018 will go out into a world that is in the midst of massive political, economic and social forces that they might feel helpless to confront, Pugh said. He urged them to find the courage to face what lies ahead.

Elon Music Ambassadors performed "Higher Ground" by Stevie Wonder at the Baccalaureate service Friday in Alumni Gym.
“Even though we may feel so small before the vast powers that grip our world, we are not excused to turn away from human suffering and need and this is the place where the world changes us one person at a time,” Pugh said.

He shared a story written by Loren Eisley, an American naturalist, about his observations on the shores of Costabel. It was there walking on the beach that Eisley witnessed a man who threw starfish that had washed ashore back into the sea. “The stars throw well,” the man had said. “One can help them.” The encounter left Eisley reflecting on life and death and, ultimately, he, too, started throwing the starfish back into the sea.

“The one man who didn’t give in to the vast powers of nature changed the one man in front of him,” Pugh said. “… If you listen to those other voices, really listen, you’ll truly understand why black lives matter. You’ll see the immigrant in a new way that compels you to search out your own family’s story of coming to America and the hatred and hardships they overcame. You’ll grasp that LGBT people just want to live with the respect that should be afforded to all persons.”

Seniors Monique Swirsky, Ariel Mittleman, Juliet Goodman, Lea Silverman, Hannah Clifford, Lindsay Rosen and Samantha Maoz offer a blessing in Hebrew.
Pugh finished by explaining that wealth and power won’t define the graduates’ lives. “Your lives will be measured by the one person who stands in front of you at any given time,” he said. “… Out here on the edge of the universe, we seem so small but to the person standing in front of you, you are the universe in a moment of time.”

Before he spoke, University Chaplain Jan Fuller remembered Harrison Durant ’18, the senior from Arlington, Massachusetts, who died in December. Durant was majoring in computer sciences.

Seniors Emily DeMaioNewton, Kellcee Batchelor and Lea Silverman offered reflections about the meaning they’ve made out of their time at Elon. “Elon University and the people you’ve brought together have given me everything I need as I move on to law school,” Silverman said. “I’m strong. I’m confident, and I can handle anything.”