‘Dream big, keep going and sing out’: Elon celebrates Class of 2024 at 134th Commencement

More than 1,400 students across two ceremonies participated in Elon University's Commencement in Schar Center on Friday, May 24.

Challenged to “dream big, keep going and sing out,” members of the Class of 2024 on Friday became the newest Elon University alumni during the institution’s 134th Commencement, with scores of friends, family members, faculty and staff cheering them on in Schar Center.

The ceremony capped four years for this class of Elon students that was filled with engaged learning experiences inside and outside the classroom. These students conducted undergraduate research, studied away from Elon across the country and around the globe, built skills and connections through internships and fostered connections and relationships with each other and mentors across campus.

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

These commencement ceremonies were a bookend to a college experience that began like no other, with the Class of 2024 arriving to Elon’s campus in the midst of a global pandemic following an end to their high school careers that saw them learning remotely and celebrating graduation distanced from one another. But these resilient students were close together on Friday as they celebrated what they had accomplished and looked ahead to futures shaped by what they have learned and overcome during their time at Elon.

“As we come to value our strengths and our curiosities, we can contribute to the overall wellbeing of society,” said Grace Ackermann ’24, selected this year to deliver a message of appreciation on behalf of the class. “Elon has pushed us to understand who we are and what we add to the world, and as we leave this ceremony today, we can feel confident that if we seek the truth, we will find it, if we strive for the beautiful, we will attain it, and if we put our best selves forward, we will always achieve the good.”

Grace Ackermann ’24 delivers a message of appreciation during Elon University’s 134th Commencement on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

More than 1,400 students gathered in Schar Center across two ceremonies to conclude their undergraduate education at Elon. They came originally from 43 states and nearly 40 countries, but have called Elon home as they have pursued their degrees in a wide variety of fields and disciplines. They gathered together on campus a final time to celebrate each other and hear words of reflection and inspiration from their peers, their mentors, campus leaders and alumna Ginna Glaire Mason ’13, who has starred on Broadway stages and television screens during her renowned performing career.

Mason, a graduate of Elon’s esteemed Music Theatre program and recognized in 2017 as one of Elon’s Top 10 Under 10 Alumni, delivered the commencement address to the graduating class and recounted how she graduated from Elon and moved on to a new stage in her life, literally. The relationships, opportunities and experiences that filled her four years at Elon were impactful, she said, “shaping and stretching me, broadening my perspectives and worldviews.”

Alumna Ginna Claire Mason ’13 delivered the main address at Elon University’s 134th Commencement on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

She was already planning her wedding at the time of her graduation and within five weeks had moved to New York City as a newlywed to pursue her Broadway dreams. As a middle school student, she recalled, she had proclaimed to her parents during the intermission of a performance of the Broadway hit “Wicked” that she would one day land the role of Glinda, the good witch. That’s precisely the role she would eventually secure on Broadway as her performing career began to take off.

“It’s never too late to dream new dreams, to change your dream, to fully realize one dream and step forward into the next,” Mason said. “The best is always yet to come. So, Class of 2024, I dare you to dream. To never stop dreaming, even in the face of rejection. To challenge yourself every day — “if anything was possible… what would I do?” And chase that dream with all your heart, no matter how scary, how silly, how daunting it may feel. Fight for that dream.”

More than 800 shows into her run as Glinda in “Wicked” and on a sold-out Thursday night in the Greenwich Theatre, Broadway’s largest, Mason learned another lesson during the final scenes of the night’s performance. Responding to feedback from the director, she prepared to rush urgently into the scene, but missed the top step of a 15-foot-tall staircase and tumbled, her crown flying, to gasps from the crowd. Her response, caught by someone recording the performance, was to say, “I’m OK. Keep going.”

It was an utterance to reassure her scene partner, the audience and also herself, she said. A print of the quote now hangs backstage in the theater. “You will fall in life — unexpected accidents, broken dreams, derailed plans and maybe even some poor choices will leave you on all fours at the bottom of your staircase,” Mason said. “May I suggest that not if but when things feel like they have fallen to bits, assess the damage, turn to and lean into your scene partners — your trusted and caring confidants — give yourself a little pep talk if you need it, and keep going.”

Finally, Mason challenged the Class of 2024 to “sing out” — literally — by having the members of the class sing out any note, with the sound filling Schar Center. “Music helps us process. It celebrates and comforts, and it memorializes certain periods of our lives, bringing us right back to a moment with just a few notes,” Mason said.

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

As proof, Mason led a performance of “I Will Turn to You,” composed by Elon alumni Dan Gibson ’09 and Christopher Staskel ’10, a piece performed each year by students in Elon’s renowned Music Theatre program each spring at the program’s “Grand Night” event. Joining Mason on stage were current students in the program as well as music theatre majors from the Class of 2024 and alumna and fellow Broadway start Nasia Thomas ’15.

From the song:

“I will turn to you
You’ve been there all along
I am turning to the ones who make me strong
We are only passing through every ending
Just the start of something new
And now it’s up to you.”

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

Among those lifting up their voices during both commencement ceremonies was Sivaun Scott ’24, who dazzled the audience with his renditions of the national anthem and Elon’s alma mater. Additionally, longtime faculty members Rich Landesberg from the Department of Journalism and Cassie Kircher from the Department of English, who are both retiring this year after illustrious careers at Elon, carried in the university mace at the two ceremonies.

Friday was indeed an ending and a new beginning for the Class of 2024. Multiple speakers acknowledged that many in this class of students were experiencing their first true graduation given that many high school ceremonies were called off or altered due to the pandemic.

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

“It’s weird being at graduation now,” said Caleigh Lawlor ’24 as she prepared to enter Schar Center and receive her diploma. “I texted my friend from home the other day and I said, ‘I literally don’t know how to walk at graduation, what do I do?’ It’s bittersweet because I have to say goodbye to the new home I’ve had for the past four years, but I know it’s all because we’re going on to do bigger and better things.”

Following the ceremony, Gianna Smurro ’24 said she had initially been nervous about moving so far way from her home in New Jersey to attend Elon, but once she met her roommate and settled into her community in Sloan residence hall in the Historic Neighborhood, she felt at home. “I really will take away all of the relationships I’ve made with professors and friends because that’s the thing that will last me a lifetime, even past my career,” Smurro said. “I’m grateful for the opportunities Elon has given me. I’m sad to go but I’m really excited for all of the opportunities it will provide me in the future.”

Throughout their time at Elon, facing unique and challenging experiences, these new Elon alumni demonstrated resilience by leaning on each other and members of the university community. University Chaplain Kirstin Boswell in her invocation offered thanks for those who supported these students throughout their journeys. “We lift our prayers of gratitude for the culmination of this journey and the gift of endurance that was necessary to run this race,” said Boswell, who is dean of multifaith engagement. “Grant that all who are gathered under the sound of my voice recognize that and fully receive the gift that is today, seize it, and marvel at all that it is—for it is the close of one season and the opening of another.”

Sivaun Scott ’24 performed during Elon University’s 134th Commencement on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

New to Elon’s commencement exercises this year was the selection of a student speaker to offer a message of appreciation on behalf of the class, with Ackermann selected for the inaugural honor. In her remarks, she acknowledged the unpredictable start she and her classmates experienced four years ago, and also how they have learned how to leverage that experience going forward.

“I have come to know that the only certainty in life is that it will be unpredictable,” Ackermann said. “We can look at that as a negative situation — nervous our next step won’t be a good fit, concerned about staying in touch with friends, worried about learning how to function in the adult world. Or we can look at this unpredictability as an opportunity. Life is meant to be a learning experience.”

Among the opportunities Shannon Kutcher ’24 took advantage of during her time at Elon was working as an interfaith intern in the Truitt Center for Religious and Spiritual Life. “I learned there what it means to interact with strangers and find connections with people I never thought I’d be able to,” Kutcher said as she prepared to file into Schar Center for the first commencement ceremony.

Will McCoy ’24, who majored in media analytics and computer science, is from Charlotte. He arrived at Elon knowing he wanted to pursue a degree in the School of Communications and found his path during his time at Elon. “I didn’t exactly know what direction I wanted to go in,” said McCoy, who was a member of the football team. “But the way the program is set up, you have to take different classes in different majors so you understand what you might want to do and I found media analytics,” McCoy said. “It’s pretty awesome to be here right now.”

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

Elon President Connie Ledoux Book reminded the class of their arrival to campus in August 2020, when they donned masks and adhered to social distancing to protect the health and safety of the university community. These Elon students were among the few college students that fall who were able to return to campus and remain on campus, conducting learning in person and building personal connections face to face, Book said.

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

“What I do remember about those early days was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that in an environment where there was so much loss that you didn’t have to give up beginning your studies at Elon,” Book said. “I am positive that you all would agree that many wonderful things unfolded here over the last four years.”

Monica Osborne of Florida celebrated with her daughter, Mya, following the first commencement ceremony, and said she has seen her daughter grow into her own person during the past four years. “I’ve seen her grow in maturity, the level of independence, the ability to be analytical and make analyses and decisions that are in her best interest, and we’ve seen her develop to the point where she’s got a full-time job,” Osborne said.

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.

Book recalled a commencement address in 2020 from the late Isabella Cannon ’24, one of Elon’s most celebrated alumni. Cannon, a former mayor of Raleigh, North Carolina, was 96 when she delivered the address, and Book recounted her telling the new graduates to “embrace the unexpected” as they headed out into the world.

“You, Class of 2024, fully understand the meaning behind those words and have lived it – embrace the unexpected,” Book said. “I’m confident that this is your superpower – your generation’s superpower.”

Elon University’s 134th Commencement was held on Friday, May 24, 2024, in Schar Center.