Class of 2023 urged to ‘make the world more like Elon’ at 133rd Commencement

Nearly 1,500 were invited to participate in Elon's 133rd Undergraduate Commencement on Friday, May 19, in the Schar Center.

Elon University celebrated the perseverance, resilience and historic achievements of the Class of 2023 on Friday as a new cohort of alumni received their diplomas and capped a successful but challenging four years at the university at the 133rd annual Commencement ceremonies on Friday, May 19, in Schar Center.

Student holding diploma during the 2023 Commencement. Along with having the opportunity to cheer each other on, swap hugs and high-fives and even shed a few tears, this new class of Elon graduates heard from Ashton Newhall ’98, a third-generation venture capitalist and ardent supporter of the university who shared about how he has worked to “make the world more like Elon.”

“When you leave this place, don’t be in such a hurry to move on that you leave behind its values, its traditions, its character,” Newhall advised the new graduates. “Hold them close. Make them part of the next version of you. Let that seed grow stronger every day, wherever you are, whatever you do, however much time has passed.”

Friday’s commencement ceremonies capped a week of gatherings and celebrations for the Class of 2023, including the Numen Lumen: Senior Baccalaureate Reflection held in Alumni Gym on Tuesday night, where students received their oak saplings and a Senior Celebration in Rhodes Stadium on Wednesday. On Thursday, Latinx students were recognized at the annual “¡Celebremos!: Graduates Take Flight” and at Donning of the Kente, a ceremony that celebrates the achievements of students who recognize their African heritage. 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 2019.

During their Elon careers, the members of the Class of 2023 have broadened their worldviews through global engagement, undertaken innovative undergraduate research and contributed to the local community through service learning. While their time at Elon ended on Friday, the core Elon values will continue to bloom in them for the years to follow.

This particular graduating class is a special group for several reasons, Class of 2023 president Lily Kays said, not the least of which was the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic touched all four years of their college experience. “We changed the world and changed with the world. We found a way to rapidly adjust to Zoom classes, Zoom meetings, Zoom hangouts and every other kind of Zoom event while still managing to connect, grow and learn,” Kays said.

This class’s graduation coincides with the 100th anniversary of the fire of 1923 which destroyed the university’s main administration building and threatened the future of what was then Elon College. But college leaders, faculty, staff, students and the surrounding community came together to chart a course for the school that would not just rebuild, but position Elon to become the university it is today.

“Fire has a negative connotation, especially at Elon. But fire has forged our history and our pathway forward,” Kays said. “Fire is symbolic. It represents strength, courage and creativity. Elon rose from the ashes, braving and fighting to rebuild. That fire and its impact are instilled in our walls and in each person who found themselves at Elon University.”

Commencement Day at Elon saw two ceremonies in Schar Center, with students in Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education participating in a morning ceremony in Schar Center and those in the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business and the School of Communications gathering in the afternoon to receive their diplomas. At each, graduating seniors Sayo Oni and Candace Rhodes offered singing performances that brought the audience to their feet.

2023 Commencement speaker C. Ashton Newhall delivering his commencement address.

Twenty-five years ago, Ashton Newhall was sitting in his seat ready to receive his diploma as he concluded a four-year experience at Elon that started with his parents covertly placing a bet on how long he would last when they dropped him off as a first-year student. Newhall shared that he had faced multiple challenges when he was younger, and that making it to college was what he called a “big deal.”

But he found at Elon a place that he told the graduates was a haven from cynicism, a place where it was cool to care, OK to be passionate about what mattered to you, “where the way to belong was to be warm, welcoming and sincere.”

“At Elon, I found a community rooted in relationships. A culture of engagement. A reason to get involved,” he said.

When Newhall graduated in 1998 with a degree in sociology, he assumed that he would find those same characteristics he found at Elon in those he worked for as he began his career. Back home in Baltimore, Maryland, and took a job at an investing firm, what at first seemed like the perfect opportunity for him.

A member of the Class of 2023 shows off her diploma at Commencement.

He encountered people who were smart but unsupportive,. They were talented but not passionate about the work they were doing. Newhall lacked that sense of purpose that he had found at Elon. So, he decided to take a leap of faith and at just 25 years old, he quit his job and started his own venture capital firm that would become Greenspring Associates. Greenspring would support the successful launch of several companies such as Chewy, GrubHub and Everything But the House, and in 2021, was purchased by the global investment firm StepStone Group.

On the surface, Newhall explained, his job is to help people identify their great ideas and help turn them into a mass-market reality. “But here’s what it’s really about — at least for me. It’s about seeking out people like the ones I met here at Elon,” Newhall said. “People who’ve found something to be passionate about; people who care. It’s about building relationships around trust, belonging and shared enthusiasm — and helping them turn their dreams into realities.”

For instance, Greenspring would support the vision of Ryan Cohen, the founder of Cohen had noticed how great of an experience had at his local pet shop, Newhall said, and he wanted to recreate the same kind of intentionality for online shoppers. That drive would lead to the creation of the successful and growing online pet supply company.

“What I saw in Ryan was the same quality I saw in the people I met here at Elon. The same quality my partners and I would come to see in other ideas we backed, idea like GrubHub, Scopely, Roblox and dozens more,” Newhall said.

“You already know what that quality is. In a world that can be cold and cynical and transactional — be warm. Be welcoming. Be personal. Be passionate,” he added. “Put relationships at the center of everything you do.”

Although the world may not be like Elon, the Class of 2023 can bring Elon with them as they enter the world, Newhall said. He issued a charge to these new graduates – keep your Elon values sharp and carry them everywhere you go.

“Make the world more like Elon,” Newhall said. “Because every time you choose to care, every time you get involved and nurture somebody’s enthusiasm, you make this world a little more like Elon. And I promise you, the world you’ve built right here … of small kindnesses, big passions, true friendship and warm welcomes, it’s all you really need to navigate the world there.”

During the second ceremony, Newhall was presented with an honorary doctorate in business by Raghu Tadepalli, dean of the Martha & Spencer Love School of Business, and President Connie Ledoux Book.

Candace Rhodes ’23 sings “Rise Up” at Commencement.

Newhall served on the advisory board for the Love School of Business from 2003 to 2009, and from 2009 to 2017, he served on Elon’s Board of Trustees, providing invaluable input for several significant university priorities. One of the university’s most generous benefactors, Newhall is the 2008 recipient of the Elon Alumnus of the Year award for his professional accomplishments. He and his wife, Becky, have been ardent supporters of many scholarships, the Elon Academy program, the Ernest A. Koury Business Center and the Schar Center.

In addition, he began the annual The C. Ashton Newhall Endowed Lecture series in the Love School of Business which hosts a wide range of engaging, visionary and entrepreneurial guest speakers since its endowment in 2009.

“We are a stronger community because of devoted graduates like Ashton, who lives Elon’s values of courageous leadership and service for the common good,” President Book said.

The Class of 2023 represents 40 states and 35 countries. One of the most decorated classes in Elon’s history, 157 students graduated Summa Cum Laude and 803 students graduated with honors.

Elon President Connie Ledoux Book during the 2023 Commencement ceremony.

During her charge to the graduates, President Book harked back to the Class of 2023’s New Student Convocation — 1,361 days ago — and how in the four years that followed, they have been on a collective learning journey. During each convocation event, Book demonstrates a “human bar graph,” which illustrates how many students in the world have an opportunity to go to college.

Ultimately, one student at New Student Convocation sitting in the first chair stands to represent the few in the world who are fortunate to attend a residential college, like Elon. The one student that happened to be sitting in that first chair was Beth Harford ’23. Harford is an international graduate from Essex, England, and a member of the women’s soccer team. Book said she would see Harford periodically on campus and at the occasional game.

As Harford stood up in front of those gathered at New Student Convocation in August 2019, Book asked that all faculty, staff and students stand if they were willing to help her at any time during her time at Elon or after. Everyone stood in solidarity with Harford.

Harford took this request to heart as she reached out to Book this spring semester as she needed assistance getting to class after two knee surgeries. She’d tried to do it alone but after falling on a slick sidewalk on a rainy afternoon, Harford realized that needed help and to her luck, she had an entire community to lean on for support. Her call for help set up a network of support to help her get to and from class and end her semester successfully. “I’m always amazed how that works — that when we ask for help, we get better, stronger,” Book said.

Members of the Class of 2023 throw their caps in the air at Commencement

Book once again asked Harford to stand among her Elon family and again asked all in the space to stand if they would offer support to Harford in a time of need. Readily, the thousands seated in the Schar Center stood up, showing the vast support system that all members of the Elon community have at their disposal.

“Beth, now this is a powerful community right here for you, for all of us. Elon.”

Christian Spruill ’23 said he hasn’t processed his full emotions yet after receiving his bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I am still riding the high of graduating. I’ve learned a lot about myself and the world in my time at Elon. I feel a lot more prepared,” Spruill said. He plans to return to his hometown of Baltimore and will be applying to graduate school.

Sean Murphy P’23 still couldn’t believe seeing his son, Aiden, cross the stage and receive his bachelor’s degree in marketing. Although he described his son as always being mature beyond his years, his son’s time at Elon has only widened that maturity. “He always interacted well with others but he certainly grew tremendously at Elon,” Sean said.

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Commencement was coordinated by Cultural & Special Programs and made possible by significant operational support from Facilities Maintenance 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.