Elon University's senior class gathered in Alumni Gym on Tuesday night for reflection and inspiration as they prepare to graduate on Friday, May 19.
As the Elon community found itself confused at every sudden change during the COVID-19 pandemic, the weekly Ready and Resilient emails to the community from Vice President of Strategic Initiatives Jeff Stein offered a sense of guidance.
And on Tuesday night, Stein reminded the Class of 2023 of those weekly announcements, the regular emails that “nagged you about vaccines, testing and the social hiatus” and explained measures that if not adhered to could force the university to take action.
“And as a quick aside, let me just say if I was ever involved in shutting off your Phoenix Card, I’m sorry,” he said, to the laughter of those gathered in Alumni Gym on for the Numen Lumen: Senior Baccalaureate Reflection ceremony for the Class of 2023.
The Numen Lumen: Senior Baccalaureate Reflection celebration of community, light and achievement provides an opportunity for reflection on the light students will take into the world. The ceremony’s name echoes Elon’s motto “numen lumen,” which means “spiritual light” and “intellectual light.”
Stein, who was recently announced as the next president of Mary Baldwin University, delivered the 2023 Baccalaureate address. Stein said that as he and the Class of 2023 both leap into the unknown, lessons learned from navigating the pandemic can also be applied to their “scary, disorienting [and] exhilarating” futures.
“Our shared experience beginning in spring 2020 still speaks to this moment … and about how we move into the future,” he said.
Stein asked the Class of 2023 to think back to that spring three years — “that first spring when you were reluctantly sent home for the semester and that ‘herky jerky’ fall with all those constant changes.” Stein sent an email on Sept. 23, 2020, that told the campus that, “we certainly don’t have all the answers. And there is no formula or handbook for this work. We ask for your continued support, cooperation, vigilance, good ideas and grace as we navigate these unknown waters together.”
“The message then seems strikingly relevant to our shared uncharted paths ahead,” Stein said. So relevant that Stein titled his remarks, “Ready & Resilient 2.0,” with three key pieces of advice for the Class of 2023.
The first was to pause to reflect on the moment at hand. Completing college is no easy feat that should be taken for granted, especially during the atypical “new normal.”
The Senior Baccalaureate is a break in the busy week leading up to Commencement, a chance for students to sit with their peers and collectively celebrate the achievement of graduating.
But Stein asked that the Class of 2023 remember all those who have blazed a trail for them. In the early 20th century, Stein’s grandparents left Europe with one side escaping the Holocaust and the other fleeing the Russian pogroms. “I owe a debt of gratitude for being able to stand here just two generations from some of the worst atrocities in human history,” Stein said.
“Every one of us,” he added, “no matter where our ancestors came from, in some way, owe a debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed for us, who supported us, who challenged us. Therefore, at the conclusion of tonight’s ceremony when you go to light your candle, I ask you to pause and reflect on who you need to thank for helping you arrive here.”
In the second part of his address, Stein told the graduates to let go. For some, the act of letting go is instinctive while many see it as horrifying. Stein said that feelings of excitement, anxiety and confusion are normal at this part of the process. There’s endless talk about the transition into college but rarely are the months and years after graduation spoken about at similar lengths. There’ll be no orientation leaders for guidance or online listings of courses to choose from, and it will take time to get used to that shift, he said.
“But honestly, you’re more ready than you know because we’ve been here before,” he said. “COVID-19 was one of the most extreme disruptions to your Elon experience and all of our lives. We had to let go of our expectations of what Elon and life are supposed to be like.”
But adaptation is not solely related to COVID. Over the past four years, the Class of 2023 had to let go of what they thought was going to happen. What major they thought they would graduate with, what grade they thought they might get in a class, who they thought they would date are just a few of the many times the graduates have had to pivot, Stein said.
“In this regard, each of your are already experts at adaption and change. You may not have always liked it but in so many situations you had to let go of what you expected and wanted and make the best of what was in front of you,” Stein said.
The last piece of advice Stein had for the Class of 2023 was to grab onto the next trapeze. Stein quoted the book “Transitions” by William Bridges in which Bridges compares the “liminal in-between time” of finishing one phase and entering another to that of a trapeze artist “flying high above the nets getting ready to let go of one bar, seeing the next bar ahead.” While letting go is the first part of the step, grasping the next opportunity is equally as important.
“As you see this next trapeze bar swinging towards you, fly headlong toward it knowing you have grown immeasurably over the past four years. Grab hold with all your might because you are ready and you are resilient,” Stein said.
The ceremony began with the Greeting of the Drums by Leo Whitman, Bashir Shakir and Lamar Lewis. University Chaplain Kirstin Boswell welcomed the Class of 2023 and said the baccalaureate event is both a celebration of accomplishment and a time to treasure the many memories of Elon that have carved a special place in their hearts.
Looking back to the New Student Convocation for the graduates, Boswell asked the graduates to recall their New Student Convocation ceremony in August 2019. The 1,600 students reflecting diverse intersectional identities from various spiritual backgrounds and beliefs gathered as one Under the Oaks nearly four years ago, filled with a wide range of emotions.
That day, three Augusts ago, they received an acorn to symbolize the growth to come at Elon that will make them “as much a part of the history and legacy of this place as the oak trees outside that have stood for generations,” Boswell said.
“Just as an acorn can sprout and grow into a mighty oak, each of you can leave this place and plant your roots in your communities and places of origin or new communities … and anchor yourselves and grow there,” Boswell said.
Following Tuesday night’s ceremony, each graduate was given an oak sapling by an Elon alum, symbolic of the transition from students to alumni.
“You will receive your oak sapling here tonight as a symbol of the growth that we have seen with you and the promise that is yet come,” Boswell said.
The ceremony included musical performances from Mae Bischoff ’23 and Giselle Watts ’23 accompanied by Tyson Hankins and Travis Foust. Several graduating students recited various spiritual traditions or literary passages as a part of “The Meaning We Make” demonstration. The student readers were Morgan Hack, Mallory Poff, Ian Myers, Matthew Bland, Emerson Wells and Maddie Eaton.
As the Senior Baccalaureate drew to a close, the lights of Alumni Gym were dimmed and soon the building was illuminated by hundreds of lit candles as students swayed to a performance of “Bridge of Light” by Pink and Billy Mann.
As the performance ended and flickering candles lit the room, President Connie Ledoux Book said she hoped the graduates feel a sense of love following the Senior Baccalaureate.
“Not only the love you have for each other, but the love that you have for the journey that you have traveled here at Elon,” Book said. “And I would argue that the love you feel isn’t because your time here has been easy, but probably because of the opportunity. Your deep sense of connection and love is because it hasn’t been easy.”
William Collins ’23 will walk the stage of Schar Center on Friday to receive his degree in engineering. Collins said the Senior Baccalaureate was a bittersweet moment as his time at Elon is drawing to a close. But drawing inspiration from Stein’s address, he’s ready to grab on to the next trapeze.
“I love it here so much … but I’m ready to go,” Collins said.
Allie Roberts ’23, who will graduate with a degree in global studies, said she didn’t know what to expect from the Senior Baccalaureate. But being able to spend the ceremony with her friends and enjoying powerful musical performances and the thoughtful remarks on top of receiving her sapling served as another memorable experience to look back on as her time at Elon soon comes to an end.
I definitely feel better about Elon now than I did when I got my acorn,” Roberts said. “It’s a nice full circle moment.”
For a full schedule of the events of Commencement Week 2023, visit Elon’s Commencement webpage.