International students plant roots on South Campus

International students in the Class of 2021 added their oak saplings to the International Grove, which saw its first saplings planted by members of the Class of 2017.

Graduating international students planted their oak saplings in the International Grove, marking the fifth year of this ceremony.

A favorite Elon tradition, students receive an acorn at New Student Convocation and an oak sapling at Commencement. The gesture symbolizes a student’s growth at Elon and the promise of growth to come.

While students plant their saplings all across the country, often international students are not able to transport their saplings back to their home country. Instead, graduating international students are invited to plant their tree at Elon, adding to the International Grove on South Campus.

With the newly revised policy on outdoor gatherings, two dozen graduating international students gathered for the ceremony. The tradition is made possible by Director of Landscaping and Grounds Scott Stevens and members of the Landscaping staff in Elon Physical Plant who help students plant, stake and water in their saplings and tend to the grove throughout the year.

Director of International Student Services Kristen Aquilino opened with her own tradition, a tree-related quote, this year by author Nelson Henderson: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

Aquilino chose this quote because it speaks to the perseverance and compassion of the class of 2021. “I think you all are so good at establishing incredible support for one another, for those that will come after you. You’re really changing the path for international students to come,” said Aquilino.

For Dean of Global Education Nick Gozik, who joined Elon in January 2021, this was his first time participating in this tradition. Gozik shared remarks about place and community.

“I want to start by honoring those that were on this land originally: the Adshusheer, Catawba, Eno, Occaneechi, Saponi, Shakori, and Sissipahaw tribes,” said Gozik.

“We’re literally going to be planting into the land, connecting with the soil, connecting with this place … I hope that you will continue to come back to Elon with your kids, your grandchildren, maybe your great grandchildren and show them your tree that has grown here and feel that connection.”

Gozik also reflected on connection through challenges and across differences, saying, “This is a year unlike any other.”

Gozik spoke to the “dual pandemic” of both the COVID-19 crisis and racism, and the importance of justice as well as empathy. To be an international student is to practice empathy and understanding every day by “getting to know people who are different from us,” said Gozik. “When we talk about that understanding, I can’t imagine another thing that’s more important in these days.”

In closing, Gozik spoke to the legacy of the International Grove and the community it represents.

“Once you are a Phoenix, you are always a Phoenix,” Gozik said. “I hope you come back to us, I hope you come back to see your tree, and you realize you’re part of this community. As we dig today, and you plant something literally into the ground, it’s part of something bigger.”

International students join the Elon community for a semester on exchange, for two years as a Dual-Degree student, or as a degree-seeking undergraduate or graduate student.

Dual-Degree student Ailsa Saffar, who graduates with business degrees from both Elon and NEOMA Business School in France, felt that sense of community through the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“Since I’ve been here, everyone has been so welcoming and so, so kind to me. Kristen has been just fabulous and Dr. Mark Kurt also,” Saffar said. “And during COVID when it was so difficult, it was great to have such a fantastic team to support us and help us.”

Saffar will return to Europe to begin her master of science in big data and analytics at ESPC Business School in Paris. Following that, Saffar has big plans.

“The dream is to be a ‘big-boss’ businesswoman – a strong, independent woman. I think Elon helped me become independent, and now I’m on my way to reaching back home,” said Saffar.

Thida Kim, who graduates Elon with degrees in project management and human service studies, also has big plans. Kim will return to her home country of Cambodia to join the staff of an international school as a high school advisor.

“I have always wanted to work in the nonprofit fields, and education is one of the sectors I want to go into,” Kim said. “When this position was offered to me, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to work in both and be able to give back.”

Kim aims to found her own NGO focused on educational access in Cambodia, “especially to kids in rural areas where it’s hard to go to school because schools are usually really far from home,” she said. Kim wants for students to know of educational options and to “have a chance to fight, like I did.”

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Kim found Elon through alumni of her high school, the Jay Pritzker Academy, near Siem Reap. “All had really awesome things to say about Elon, and I wanted to be here, too!” said Kim. Each year, one outstanding Jay Pritzker Academy graduate joins Elon, earning a full scholarship and admission to the competitive Odyssey Scholars program.

One of Kim’s favorite memories of her time at Elon is connecting with people from all over the world through international community events. For the graduates rooted in the International Grove, and those that will “sit in the shade” of those alumni for years to come, this is the legacy of Elon: the opportunity to learn about people from around the world and in turn to help foster mutual understanding within and beyond the Elon community.