International students plant oak saplings, leaving physical legacy at Elon

In a special ceremony, international students from the Class of 2020 planted oak tree saplings on South Campus to celebrate the completion of their Elon journeys.

The International Grove sits on South Campus as a reminder of the contributions of Elon’s international students over the years. The grove of oaks grows each year as the university’s newest class of international students plant new saplings, leaving a physical reminder — and eventually a towering symbol — of their time spent at Elon.

On Tuesday, the tradition continued with the Class of 2020, with 14 students planting oak saplings during a special ceremony at The International Grove, with those attending abiding by social distancing guidelines.

“Being able to leave our oak saplings at Elon not only symbolizes that we are a part of Elon forever, but also reminds us that we are important to the university,” said Mariana Guerena Gonzalez ’20, a graduating exercise science major from Mexico City, Mexico.

An oak tree sapling sits on The International Grove.

The tradition began in 2017 as a way to include Elon’s international student population in a time-honored campus tradition. Typically, graduating seniors receive oak tree saplings at Commencement to represent their growth throughout their time on campus. Students have planted their saplings across the country.

For international students, however, taking a sapling back to their home country can be difficult. So the Global Education Center, Physical Plant and Office of Sustainability started The International Grove and the annual tree-planting ceremony to allow international students to take part in the tradition.

“It’s a way to take an Elon tradition and make it new and special and unique to a certain population here at Elon,” said Shanna Van Beek, communications manager of global education.

In the fourth year of the celebration, President Connie Ledoux Book congratulated students on completing their Elon journeys before conferring degrees to each student.

Students plant saplings on The International Grove.

In years past the ceremony has been a moment for students, family and friends to come together and celebrate the class’ achievements, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to find a way to still hold the event without sacrificing the excitement of the moment. While wearing personal protective equipment and practicing social distancing, each student had the opportunity to place their oak sapling in the ground, continuing the tradition and providing a sense of normalcy during uncertain times.

“Having this take place this year was really important to keep their spirits up when they’ve been through so much,” said Associate Director of International Student Services Kristen Aquilino. “In a time like this where many of them have been so far away from their families, being able to come together and commemorate this in person was really important – especially this year.”

For Guerena Gonzalez, the ceremony was especially meaningful because it brought her Elon experience full-circle. Her cohort of international classmates were the first people she met at Elon, and as each student prepares to begin their next chapter, she says it’s fitting that they complete their journey surrounded by the classmates who have become family.

“I think especially with everything going on, it’s hard to get out of your bubble where you feel like you’re by yourself,” she said. “But this makes you realize you’re not alone.”