Updated as of May 19 at 6:30 p.m. to include video and photos from the second ceremony.
In a celebration of relationships, vulnerability and congratulations, Elon University honored the class of 2023 during its 133rd commencement ceremony May 19.
The day’s events were split into two ceremonies: the Elon College, College of Arts and Sciences and the Dr. Jo Watts Williams School of Education commencement took place in the morning, while the Martha and Spencer Love School of Business and the School of Communications ceremony took place in the afternoon.
Senior Class President Lily Kays reminded the graduating class that they honor their time at Elon exactly 100 years after the Elon fire of 1923.
“Fire has a negative connotation, especially at Elon. But fire is a part of our history,” Kays said. “It represents strength, and courage and creativity. Elon rose from the ashes, raising and fighting to rebuild.”
This year’s class not only navigated a global pandemic as freshmen and sophomores, but were also roughly 1-year-old when Elon adopted the Phoenix mascot in the year 2000.
“We are the class of the Phoenix,” Kays said. “And like the Phoenix, we did rise from the ashes. … We all face challenges in life. It's how you respond to these challenges that defines us.”
Video and photos from the first ceremony for the class of 2023 graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences and School of Education.
Kays said the Elon community’s appearance at their first pride parade in Alamance County mattered to them as someone who came out as gay when they were 16. They encouraged the class of 2023 to continue to show up and support their communities.
Kays also shared their challenges with being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in March 2020, just before the pandemic.
“I learned how much the world had to offer me when I was able to look through life's obstacles in a new angle,” Kays said. “Each moment that tests us is an opportunity to grow.”
University President Connie Book followed Kays in congratulating the class of 2023.
“I want you to remember that no matter what life hands us, no matter the moments — and there will be plenty — when things don't go the way we plan,” Book said, “I want you to remember that you have people who care about you, who are there for you and who will be there to pick you up when you need it and cheer you on when you're successful. Your life is precious, and the love we have for each other is infinite.”
Former Elon Trustee C. Ashton Newhall ’98 delivered this year’s address and returned to campus for his 25th reunion. Newhall joined the Board of Trustees in 2009 and served until 2017, when he was named Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2017 and Alumnus of the Year by Elon. He formerly served as the president of Elon’s Student Government Association and is now a partner of a global private market firm, StepStone group.
During the second ceremony, Book and Dean of the Love School of Business Raghu Tadepalli presented Newhall with the honorary degree doctorate of business on behalf of the state of North Carolina and Elon University.
Video and photos from the second ceremony for the class of 2023 graduating from the School of Business and the School of Communications.
As Kays opened up about their sexuality and mental health during their remarks, Newhall reflected in his address on losing his mother to suicide when he was 7 years old, as well as being diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia soon after.
Newhall said that when he arrived at Elon in the summer of ’94, he found something that changed the trajectory of his story.
“What I found was a haven from cynicism. I found a place where it was cool to care. Where it was okay to let yourself be passionate about things,” Newhall said. “Where the way to belong was to be warm, and welcoming and sincere. At Elon, I found a community rooted in relationships. A culture of engagement. A reason to get involved.”
Newhall also said upon graduating, he originally thought he’d find the same culture and community in the outside world, a thought that he admitted was naive. He encouraged the student body to uphold their values and cling to the importance of relationships.
“Put relationships at the center of everything you do,” Newhall said. “The world may not be like Elon, but you can bring Elon with you out into the world. Because every time you choose to care, every time you get involved and nurture somebody's enthusiasm, you make the world a little bit more like Elon.”
To close his address, Newhall told Schar Center of the sapling he took in 1998 when he graduated, and how he planted that sapling back home in Baltimore, Maryland.
He initially told the audience that his life was perfect and he wouldn’t change anything over the last 20 years of his life — with his children growing up playing next to his sapling and his grandchildren set to grow up playing under it.
Yet, after his picture-perfect story, Newhall revealed that his sapling actually got run over by a lawn mower soon after it was planted. He encouraged graduates to make, learn and grow from their mistakes, and that there is no perfect road ahead.
“When you leave this place, don't be in such a hurry to move on and leave behind its values, its traditions and its character. Hold them close. Make them a part of the next version of you. Let that seed grow stronger every day — wherever you are, whatever you do,” Newhall said. “Class of ’23, I look forward to seeing you grow into mighty oaks. Just be careful with that lawn mower. … Long live Elon!”