Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences faculty find creative, personal ways to celebrate seniors at a distance

Physical distancing and virtual celebrations gave space for more intimate moments of reflection between faculty and seniors in the Class of 2020

On May 6, the three seniors in Professor Amy Overman’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging lab were prepared for a reflection of their semesters learning together.

Instead, they got a party.

After scholarly discussions about their progression as researchers and scientists, the background of Professor of Psychology Overman’s screen changed and she donned her doctoral cap and gown for a senior send-off. “Pomp and Circumstance” played. One by one, the four lab members who weren’t yet seniors bestowed superlatives and shared affirmations of Hannah Greenwood, Chloe Hultman, and Emma Siritzky. Overman, professor of psychology and assistant dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, announced their names and emailed them mock diplomas.

Professor of Psychology and Assistant Dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, Amy Overman donned her cap and gown to confer “degrees” to graduating seniors during students’ final lab meeting May 6. Declan Stephens, 9, Overman’s son, created the artwork and Elon logo panels for students in the class.

“It was a complete surprise and I was so moved by how much time, effort, and thought they put into it,” Hultman said. “I cannot put into words how thankful I am for this act of kindness and special moment. It meant so much to me and gave me a sense of closure during this time of global uncertainty.”

Across Elon — in department web meetings, classes, between mentors and students — countless similar virtual celebrations happened this month. The end of the spring semester is often bittersweet, the sense of accomplishment mixed with the finality of communities separating for disparate futures, but none have felt like Spring 2020. With in-person class cut short in March, friends, faculty and classmates were forced to replicate virtually what came naturally face-to-face. Yet, friendships survived, teams persevered, learning still happened, as Zoom and Webex meetings became our connection to Elon once removed from it.

Throughout May, faculty and fellow students paused to commend the commencing seniors and to wish them success in an uncertain world. Department year-end banquets held online became events to toast one another and recognize the friendships and community fostered in academic pursuits.

For the Chemistry Department’s annual banquet, Professor and Chair Kathy Matera scoured social media and archives for photos of seniors from their childhood and time at Elon, displaying them in a slideshow.

“Some of you really need to change the privacy settings on your Facebook pages,” Matera quipped as the photos flashed across the screen. They elicited laughter and “awws” from the students, igniting memories of a STEM Prom in McMichael Science Center and antics outside labs.

In the History and Geography Department, what in years past was a fairly scripted annual program was transformed into an online space for graduates and faculty to reconnect and pay tribute to each other.

“We wanted something a little more participatory,” said History and Geography Department Professor and Chair Charles Irons, “We wanted students to join the discussion fully and freely. “It lasted about 40 minutes, people kept sharing meaningful or authentic words of gratitude.”

He noted that the 30 History and Geography graduates for the Class of 2020 were exceptionally strong as a class, including two of Elon’s 10 recently named Fulbright scholars: Anneliese Daggett and Jacob Stern. One senior, who will teach elementary math next year after also earning her teaching licensure, shared the note a professor wrote on a first-year paper encouraging her to pursue history. She’d saved the note as a memento.

“These expressions are more meaningful now,” in the wake of the separation caused by the pandemic, Irons said.

In a Facebook Live video for the Music Department, Associate Professor of Music and Department Chair Hallie Hogan summed up the emotions around the departure of the Class of 2020.

“Now is the time to reflect on those things which are most important in your life and carry on with patience and thoughtfulness,” Hogan said. “I hope that as time passes, you will remember how powerful and wonderful people can be, embracing the paradox that defines the journey within this grand scope. I hope that, despite the challenges that may lie ahead, you will find joy in your life and through your own creative spirit find the voice that is uniquely your own.”