Elon University's senior class gathered Under the Oaks on Tuesday night for reflection and inspiration as they prepare to graduate on Friday, May 20.
In a celebration of light and tradition, the Class of 2022 gathered again Under the Oaks on Tuesday night for Numen Lumen: Senior Baccalaureate Reflection.
It was a return to the place where they started their Elon careers four years ago, and an opportunity to reflect on how they have changed as people and the world has changed around them. The reimagining of the traditional baccalaureate ceremony offered guiding words for the years ahead as this class of students prepares to receive diplomas on Friday, May 20, at Elon University’s 132nd Commencement.
Baccalaureate speaker LD Russell, a senior lecturer in religious studies, noted the challenges these students have already faced in their lives including the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial crisis and now a global pandemic that has claimed the lives of at least 1 million people in the United States alone. He noted that members of an earlier generation, what is often called “the Greatest Generation,” also endured through periods of catastrophe and chaos, including two world wars and the Great Depression.
“I would suggest to you that they were able to do that not despite the struggles of their youth, but precisely because of them,” Russell told the crowd of more than 1,000 members of the senior class gathered Tuesday night. “After all, as many of us have learned over the past two years, it is the difficult times that push us to grow, that force us out of complacency and make us dig down deep to our inner core where the real strength, the true grit lies.”
Tuesday night’s ceremony carries special significance as it incorporated two Elon traditions — bringing the class back together Under the Oaks, whereas first-year students they were handed an acorn at New Student Convocation, and then presenting them with an oak sapling there as graduating seniors. The Class of 2022 left the ceremony Tuesday carrying their own saplings, handed out to them by scores of Elon alumni who joined these newest alumni to celebrate their achievements and endurance. “Elon” is Hebrew for “oak,” and the university’s motto is “numen lumen,” which signifies spiritual light and intellectual light.
Under the Oaks glowed as students lit candles and passed the light to one another during a musical performance by fellow class members Jaelyn Alexander, Brendan Coulter and Gianni Palmarini.
“The world needs you, Class of 2022,” said President Connie Ledoux Book. “The world needs you and it needs your beautiful light. … What you feel this evening in this setting Under the Oaks with our ‘lumen’ shining is friendship, pride, courage, maybe a little fear — and that’s OK because I’m a little scared, too — but most of all what you feel in this moment is love, Class of 2022.”
Tuesday night’s ceremony began with a Greeting of the Drums, with Lamar Lewis, Forrest Matthews, Atiba Rorie and Bashir Shakur processing through the sea of seated students to a stage set up outside Snow Atrium. As the sun began to set, University Chaplain Kirstin Boswell offered a welcome and a message of reflection upon what the Class of 2022 has overcome during the past four years, as well as how the experiences and traditions of Elon will support them in the years ahead.
She noted how they arrived on campus four years ago as people who were likely very different from the people they are now. The experience of the past four years have shaped and weathered you, Boswell told the class, but you have shown resilience as they have leaned hard into thriving.
“Just as an acorn can grow into a mighty oak, each of you can leave this place and plant your roots in your communities and places of origin, or your chosen communities and chosen places of residence, and you can anchor them and you can grow your roots there,” Boswell said. “While you will continue to learn for the rest of your lives, allow your knowledge and experience to influence the world for good in ways that perhaps you had only just begun to imagine when you arrived here.”
Following an introduction by Taylor Russ ’22, Russell shared his own insights into how this unique class of Elon students has been shaped during their time at the university, and how they may be looking ahead into the future with both excitement and uncertainty. Russell, who last week was presented with the Daniels-Danieley Excellence in Teaching Award, shared he has the same measure of excitement and uncertainty as he prepares to enter phased retirement after teaching for three decades at Elon.
When the Class of 2022 arrived at Elon in 2018, Russell said, he had begun noticing a difference in the students he was teaching, noting that they had already begun to take to heart the problems many are facing including racism, sexism and economic insecurity. Russell opined that that could be linked to the larger struggles the students have faced as a generation that helped instill in them a sense of empathy.
“Such a sense of connection to family, friends, even and especially strangers, who after all are only friends we have not yet made, this sense of oneness across whatever boundaries would keep us apart constitute the very core of what it means to be truly human,” Russell said. “If we feel an injustice, if it makes us angry even when it does not directly affect us, we are already on our way to doing something about it. In the end, how can we be fully satisfied with our own success as long as others are left to struggle?”
Russell closed by reading a piece he crafted during the early months of the pandemic, words he said he hopes the Class of 2022 will remember as they face the future challenges that will inevitably come. “May Elon University, this beloved institution to which we owe so much, which has survived despite every setback and continues to thrive in the face of ongoing challenges, the alma mater which has seen us through our own trying times and will need our support more than ever in the days to come,” Russell read from the piece, “may Elon be our inspiration to move forward into an uncertain future with the assurance that together we will rise up.”
Following a musical reflection by Mary Louise Fuller ’22, Alexa Lugo ’22 and Sarah Poythress ’22, fellow members of the Class of 2022 offered readings from a variety of faith traditions as well as selections of poetry. Offering the readings that demonstrated “The Meaning We Make” were Lindsay Rosenzweig, Zoe Kate Kurtz, Caroline Penfield, Victoria Sardegna, Maqueline Weiss, Deena Elrefai, Lilly Santiago, Alaa Suleiman and Ellen Fiedler.
Receiving the oak sapling — a symbol of their growth and connection to Elon — was the highlight of the night for many students. Unsure of what to expect from the reimagined baccalaureate event, Perry Greeson ’22 was pleasantly surprised and thoroughly satisfied by the intentional and thoughtful event. Along with Russell’s speech, Greeson was also moved by receiving his sapling at the same place he got his acorn four years prior — the perfect bookend to his Elon career. “It’s special because we remember being here in the same place freshman year. So, it’s like a full circle,” Greeson said.
Before Mia Mathas ’22 walks the stage on Friday with a bachelor’s degree in cinema and television arts, she was anxious to collect her sapling which symbolizes the transformation she’s undergone at Elon. “It hasn’t hit me that I’m graduating yet,” Mathas said. “Being Under the Oaks made me reflect on how our time is coming to an end … and how this place has shaped who I am.”
As a first-year, Mathas lost the acorn she received after New Student Convocation outside of Moseley and was distraught. A few weeks afterward, an oak tree appeared in the same area she had lost the acorn. Mathas claimed it as hers and feels that she will forever be a part of Elon’s campus even after graduating. “Now I get my sapling to take home, but a part of me will always be here,” she said.
President Book sent the Class of 2022 forth into Commencement Week with her closing remarks, noting that the class is one that couldn’t be stopped – not by hurricanes, floods, viruses or even Zoom classes.
“This evening, we provide you with a hard-earned oak sapling,” Book told the crowd, which responded with cheers. “Your acorn now has roots. Enjoy the next few days we as celebrate all you have accomplished. You are strong and you are loved, Class of 2022.”
For a full schedule of the events of Commencement Week 2022, visit elon.edu/commencement.