Class of 2021 encouraged to ‘take those wings for a spin’ at Commencement

More than 1,400 students were invited to participate in the three commencement ceremonies held Friday, May 21, in Schar Center. Tony Award nominee and Broadway star Daniel J. Watts '04 delivered the commencement address.

Elon University expanded its family of alumni on Friday, with more than 1,400 students invited to participate in the university’s 131st Commencement.

A full day meant three times the celebrations, with three complete commencement ceremonies held inside the Schar Center to be able to abide by health and safety guidelines. Graduates from the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business received diplomas at 9 a.m., those from the School of Education and School of Communication received diplomas during a 1 p.m. ceremony and graduates from Elon College, the College of Arts and Scientists received diplomas at the 1 p.m. ceremony and the third and final ceremony at 5 p.m.

Tony Award nominee and Broadway star Daniel J. Watts ’04 delivered the commencement address to the Class of 2021.

Drawing from his training as a music theatre student at Elon and his success on Broadway, Elon alumnus Daniel J. Watts ’04 delivered a powerful address all three ceremonies, inspiring these new Elon graduates to recognize how they have grown, and will still yet grow, while instilling pride in them for their individuality and differences. The Tony Award-nominated performer combined humor, spoken word poetry and musical language in his Commencement address, drawing upon the image of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis with new wings. He explained that newly emerging butterflies can’t fly right away, but need to sit and wait for their wings to dry.

“Just because you have wings now doesn’t mean you have to fly right now,” Watts told the Class of 2021. “Because this world isn’t going anywhere. Sometimes the gift isn’t the new growth. Sometimes the gift is having the time to remember and reflect how much you’ve grown. So before you rush and flutter off into this world anew, take the time to recognize the wings that you grew.”

Watts got his start on Broadway in 2005 when he was tapped to fill a role in “The Color Purple.” Producers saw his talents and Watts went on to win roles in the Broadway productions of “Hamilton,” “In the Heights,” and “Memphis,” among others. Last fall, the American Theatre Wing recognized his first lead performance as one of Broadway’s best, nominating him for a Tony as Best Featured Actor in a Musical. “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” is nominated for 12 Tonys in all, including Best Musical. The awards ceremony has not yet been scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But back in 2000, Watts arrived on campus as a first year student “and you couldn’t tell me nothing.” He was filled with confidence, but lacked the knowledge of who he would become, he said. He would tragically lose a long-time friend and fellow Elon student, Kimberly Rei Yeargin, the following year, but not before she told him that “God had great plans for me and I would do good things.

Senior Class President Jessica Flacksenburg delivering remarks to her classmates.

That same year, the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 would further shake his world and the campus community. He said Elon would become a place of protection for him during the next three years — a chrysalis — that allowed him to continue to grow “while breaking down everything I thought I knew about myself and slowly revealing to me who I was to become.”

To the newly-winged graduates, Watts explained that some would be treated differently because of the color of their wings — “sometimes positively, sometimes negatively and sometimes you will not be able to decipher which or why.”

“Do not retract them in shame,” Watts told the crowd. “Spread them wide. Take up space. But allow space for others to do the same. For we know for a fact there is more than enough room in this world for monarchs and swallowtails and metalmarks and skippers and if you ever feel like you are overcrowded or overwhelmed, give yourself the grace to go and find a garden of your own.”

Watts urged the new graduates to never forget what they’ve been through during the past four years — the challenges of university, of a pandemic, of life.

“And then and only when you are ready, spread those wings, take them for a spin, see what the world brings, as you dance with the wind,” Watts said. “You’re all in my heart, you’re all on my mind, and if you’re ever in doubt, know that I’m by your side.”

Members of the Class of 2021 also hear from one of their own, with Senior Class President Jessica Flacksenburg jokingly tapping into all the Commencement cliches her Papa, an educator, shared with her from all the graduation ceremonies he sat through the years — the definition of a graduate, the disbelief that it’s been four years, the advice to remember your roots as you go out into the world. There’s one oft-repeated phrase that while frequently heard still rings true, Flacksenburg said.

“‘The world needs Elon graduates,” Flacksenburg said. “President Emeritus Leo Lambert said this at our first-year convocation and it’s stuck with me ever since. After spending these last few years working closely with many of you, I believe that to be true more than ever.”

The Rev. Jan Fuller, university chaplain, opened each ceremony with an invocation, with Haile Ferrier ’21, performing the “Star-Spangled Banner” and Elon’s Alma Mater. Commencement was coordinated by Cultural & Special Programs and made possible by significant operational support from Physical Plant and Campus Safety & Police, as well as volunteers from offices, departments and programs across campus who all worked throughout the day to make the event special.

Friday’s commencement ceremonies capped a week of gatherings and celebrations for the Class of 2021, including a Senior Celebration in Rhodes Stadium Wednesday night that followed a Senior College Coffee earlier in the day. Thursday night saw Donning of the Kente, with 56 members of the Class of 2021 honored during a ceremony that celebrates the achievements of students who recognize their African heritage. Earlier in May, the Gender & LGBTQIA hosted the Lavender Graduation and Awards celebration to honor student excellence. Schools, departments and organizations across the campus also hosted their own events to applaud these graduating students and all they have accomplished since arriving on campus in 2017.

At College Coffee, Jenna Kulacz, a dance major, credited her time at Elon with helping her learn to believe in herself and to trust her abilities. “It’s important to me that I believe in myself and I keep reaching new heights,” Kulacz said. “I’m able to push myself in ways that I never thought possible since coming to Elon. I think Elon shaped me into the person I am today, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without this amazing school.”

Emily Roberts, who majored in psychology and human service studies, said Elon has offered her the opportunity to try new things — to travel the world, to participate in a wide variety of organizations. “I’ve learned so much through that — how to get out of your comfort zone,” Roberts said.

Noah Orr is a strategic communications major and said it is “absolutely terrifying” that his time at Elon is coming to an end, but that all that he and his classmates have done during the past four years has been leading to this day. “What I’m really going to miss is always being surrounded by people who love and care about me,” Orr said.

Gaby Jimenez, a first-generation student from Maryland who majored in political science, will be heading to New York after graduation to attend law school. She’s interested in being a prosecutor and also working on criminal justice reform. At College Coffee on Wednesday, Jimenez was looking forward to Commencement as a celebration, but not just for herself.

“It’s also for my family and my parents as well,” Jimenez said. “I think this just shows them everything that they’ve worked hard for. I’m super grateful to be here and super proud to be able to walk across that stage for them and just give them thanks for everything they’ve done.”

In her charge to the new graduates, President Connie Ledoux Book said she is grateful for all the students who decided to press forward and keep working toward their learning goals during challenging times. Students, faculty and staff working together were able to manage the bumpy moments, shift gears, and make it through what has been an extraordinary year.

“I charge you to use your Elon education, your new knowledge and Elon values to create a season of prosperity and thriving for all of us, for each of you, for the world,” Book said.