Long-awaited Commencement honors achievements of the Class of 2020

More than 700 graduates from the class, which held a virtual graduation ceremony in May 2020, returned to campus to celebrate the conclusion of their Elon education

Members of the Class of 2020 returned to Under the Oaks on Sunday — the place where they first gathered as first-year students in August 2016 — for a pandemic-delayed and much-anticipated Commencement celebration marking the conclusion of their Elon undergraduate education.

Nearly five years ago, they left that grove of oaks with an acorn and on Sunday, each graduate walked away with an oak sapling, signifying their growth as students, global citizens and people. They also left with a more formal sense of closure to their undergraduate years at Elon, which were disrupted when the pandemic shifted classes online and closed residence halls near the conclusion of their senior year.

In his Commencement address to the graduates, Elon parent Leonard Dick P’20 acknowledged the challenges the Class of 2020 has faced, and offered them encouragement to remain resilient in the face of failures or roadblocks. An Emmy Award-winning writer and producer, Dick drew from the classic movie “Rocky” in his remarks, noting that the boxer repeatedly got knocked down, but always found the strength to pick himself up off the mat.

“Elon Class of 2020, you have already entered the ring – and certainly not the way you expected,” Dick said. “You’ve had the best training in the world thanks to this very special university. You have an incredible corner cheering you on. And you’ve already been knocked down – hard. And you’ve gotten up. And while you’ll surely get knocked down many more times along the way, I have no doubt that you are all going to go the distance.”

Sunday’s Commencement ceremony for the more than 700 Class of 2020 alumni who attended was the culmination of three days of reconnections and celebrations. The lineup of events was made possible from people and offices across the university, including Alumni Engagement, Cultural and Special Programs, Parent Engagement , Facilities Management, Campus Safety & Police as well as volunteers from a variety of university operations who assisted with the main Commencement ceremony on Sunday.

For many, it was their first time returning to campus since Elon shifted classes online and closed residential facilities in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. The Class of 2020 participated remotely in an online degree-conferral ceremony and received their diplomas in May 2020, but had missed out on an in-person celebration of their accomplishments — until this weekend.

Alumni returning to campus on Friday were invited to reconnect with faculty members at receptions hosted by academic departments and the deans of each of Elon’s schools. Saturday saw the annual Lavender Graduation and Donning of the Kente celebrations, followed by a special tailgate for the Class of 2020 before the Phoenix took on the Wofford Terriers in Rhodes Stadium. Saturday night alumni and their guests were invited to a class celebration with music, food and fun in Lambert Academic Village.

The biggest draw was obviously the chance to don a cap and gown, walk across the stage and be handed an oak sapling, an Elon tradition.

Dick told the crowd that as he prepared for this weekend, he picked up the version of his remarks that he had penned before the pandemic, he initially thought he would have to rewrite it. “I pulled out the draft of that speech and was surprised to find it still applied, maybe even more so,” Dick said.

He had drafted the speech after a pilot for a new drama series he had pitched to the Fox Television Network and he thought had been well-received was not picked up. “So, Class of 2020, having closed one remarkable chapter of your lives and already starting the next chapter, I have wonderful news for you — you’re going to get fired,” Dick said.

Turning to the boxer Rocky, who was knocked down and clobbered, who had people encouraging him to quit, Dick told the Class of 2020 that the question is how you respond when that happens. “You are going to do great things — in your professional lives, your personal lives, your communities,” Dick said. “But along the way, you’re gonna get clobbered.”

Dick said that, yes, he’s seen successes, which include writing credits for “Lost,” “House” and “The Good Wife,” but that the introduction that President Connie Ledoux Book read isn’t quite complete, “because who wants to hear, ‘Took a few years and a lot of rejection to get first break. Then lost job when the show was cancelled because the producer embezzled half-a-million dollars.”

But the difference is, like Rocky, you have to pick yourself up off the mat, Dick said.

“Class of 2020 — I’m bullish on you,” Dick said. “Because in your own individual ways, you’ve already been picking yourselves off that mat. … And here’s something that should encourage and inspire you. You have a lot more people in your corner than Rocky did.”

That includes the strong bonds and friendships with Elon classmates, with what will be long-standing relationships with Elon faculty and staff, as well as the steadfast support of other friends and family members, Dick said. “I guarantee you this: When you get decked like Rocky, not only will any of these people be yelling at you to get up, they will happily climb into that ring to help you grab that first rope.”

Members of the Class of 2020 spread out around the country following their graduation, pursuing new professional careers, graduate degrees and other passions. Among them is Noor Irshaidat, who served as senior class president, and assisted in the planning for this special weekend. Irshaidat is now a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School.

Irshaidat told her classmates that she would have written a much different speech if she had been speaking to them from the stage in May 2020. We are different now, Irshaidat said, having weathered a global pandemic and already set out on new post-graduation paths. The return to campus is to celebrate the Class of 2020 “plus one,” with a pandemic as that “plus one.”

“Despite all the unexpected and devastating consequences, one thing is undeniably true: COVID-19 has made us stronger,” Irshaidat said. “We are different people today. Not just because of the time that has passed since we thought we would be sitting here but also because this pandemic forced us to rethink, reexamine, reevaluate, and, in some ways, reclaim ourselves and our lives.”

In closing, Irshaidat conferred upon her classmates her own version of an Elon degree — “a master’s in humanity, with a concentration in pandemic experience.”

In her charge to the Class of 2020, President Book encouraged the graduates to remember where they came from, and not forget that this class holds a unique place in Elon history as a group that persevered and finished the academic year and their degrees under the most difficult and unprecedented circumstances.

“In overcoming the obstacles that turned your senior year upside down, you gained a perspective and skills that will be invaluable throughout your life,” Book said. “The friends you made at Elon and the faculty and staff who became your mentors are always ready to help you celebrate life’s triumphs and respond to troubles.”

The pandemic has shown how interconnected and interdependent the world is, and has underscored the obligations we have to each other as global citizens, Book said. “Never forget your essential role in building and nurturing a better world,” she said. “Never forget the lessons you learned on this campus about using your knowledge and light — your numen and lumen — to bring hope to others.”