International students plant new roots as they complete their Elon degrees

For a third year, international students in the graduating class planted their oak saplings on South Campus, and shared words of advice for students to come. 

One of Elon’s most beloved Commencement traditions, where alumni give graduates an oak sapling, has allowed hundreds of oak trees to take root across the country.

However, many international students returning to their home countries are unable to take their oak saplings along. So since 2017, graduating international students have planted their saplings in the International Grove on South Campus.

Joined by families, faculty and staff, 17 students on May 23 planted their saplings, more than doubling the size of the grove.

The gathering offered a chance for students, past and present, to reconnect with each other, as well as to consider what they’ve learned beyond the classroom during their four years at Elon. Planting the sapling provided one more way for these students to leave a lasting mark on the university before heading off to new careers and their next adventures.

​Joining the group was Barang Phuk ’18, who surprised the international student members of the Class of 2019 including Sopheap Luon, an Odyssey Scholar and former classmate at her high school outside Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Phuk and Luon are among five graduates of the Jay Pritzker Academy to attend Elon through a special partnership between the schools. One Jay Pritzker Academy graduate is admitted each year to Elon University with a full scholarship as a member of the Odyssey Scholar program.

The Jay Pritzker Academy prepares students in the Siem Reap area for top-tier universities – not only in its commitment to academics, but in supporting students’ needs outside the classroom in providing study materials, meals, access to healthcare, and other necessities.

Phuk was among the first class of Jay Pritzker Academy graduates, and the first to attend Elon. She is currently the research and outreach officer at University Network for Human Rights and will begin at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago this fall. Following her graduation from law school, she intends to return to Cambodia as a human rights lawyer with a focus on access to education. While Phuk is still in the United States, Elon can expect to see her at future International Grove and Commencement events as she plans to return to Elon every year.

​Luon has similar aspirations to Phuk and recognizes the critical role of education. “My mother dreams of getting a higher education,” Luon said. “I want to help others who have a dream but can’t afford to do it on their own,” Luon said, reflecting on her own educational journey and the support she has received.

Luon shared advice for other Jay Pritzker graduates at Elon and incoming international students — “Go out and try what Elon has to offer, and seek out the Global Education Center, the Student Professional Development Center, and other offices for advice.”

Other international graduates shared advice, reflecting on their time at Elon:

“Don’t be afraid to express yourself and stand up for yourself. If you have an accent, own it,” said Charlotte Jaecker, who is from Germany.

“Ana Taveira, from Brazil, suggested that students “do something you can remember positively, every day.”

Sheefali Kavthankar from South Africa suggested students try out a wide range of opportunities. “Don’t be afraid to commit to things,” Kavthankar said. “Try new things and see what sticks.”