North Carolina Oak

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending my friend’s graduation at Elon University in North Carolina. Founded in 1889, the college is 620 acres large in the town of Elon, North Carolina. A walk on the university’s grounds is far more relaxing than one would anticipate for a center of academia: Elon’s iconic brick buildings, botanical gardens, and gorgeous fountains are why the university has been named the #1 most beautiful campus in the country by Princeton Review, New York Times, and others.

The name “Elon” comes from the Hebrew word for “oak,” because of the large number of oak trees on the land where the university was originally settled. Although a majority of the trees had to be cleared to construct campus, “Under the Oaks” is one of the main quads on campus where a multitude of trees still stand. Each year it is the site that welcomes students to campus at the fall New Student Convocation, and it appropriately hosts the conclusion of their college journey at Commencement in the spring.

Elon University's 2015 commencement at its annual location, Under the Oaks.
Elon University’s 2015 commencement at its annual location, Under the Oaks.

“The history of Elon University is uniquely tied to trees. The school was built in a grove of trees, and took its name from the oaks that remained,” according to the university website. To celebrate its 125 years as an institution, Elon planted 125 trees during its “quasquicentennial” (from September 2013 to March 2014). The trees range in over 100 species that are mapped out in a GPS-guided tour; from Overcup and Regal Prince Oaks, to Autumn Brilliance Serviceberry and Yoshino Cherry, the trees’ sizes and species names are breathtaking.

Most mid-sized private universities have beautiful and scenic campuses like Elon University, so what makes this institution unique? Their commitment to the oak tree is not just a symbol that sounds good on tours and entices new students, but it is a valuable mascot for the university and its core values. Since the early ’90s, each Elon graduate has received an oak sapling on their graduation day, to welcome them to the community of Elon alumni. What started as a gift from the 1991 graduation speaker (an Elon alum who had a career in the timber business) became a permanent tradition at Elon Commencement; starting at the beginning of his time in office, the current Elon president gives each student an acorn at New Student Convocation to symbolize the beginning of their college careers.

The table of oak saplings for Elon's graduates to plant in their post-grad life.
The table of oak saplings for Elon’s graduates to plant in their post-grad life.

Of the about 1,200 students who graduated from Elon college last weekend, all of them went home with oak saplings. Viewed as a right of passage for completing their undergraduate journey, the oak sapling is not just a tangible souvenir to complement one’s diploma, but it is a graduate’s first chance to make their mark on the world. Each of the oak saplings will rapidly grow into mighty oak trees, and when they do, they will help benefit whatever environment surrounds them.

According to the Arbor Day Foundation, one large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people. Over one whole year, a mature tree can absorb more than 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and release oxygen in exchange. Not only can trees help undo the damage humans have done with carbon emissions in our atmosphere, but they also help save energy and reduce crime. According to the Department of Energy, carefully positioned trees can reduce a household’s energy consumption by up to 30%; the placement of three trees can save a family $100 to $250 a year in energy costs. Lastly, the U.S. Forest Service found that trees also reduce crime. In Baltimore, for example, a 10% increase in tree canopy resulted in a 12% decrease in crime. Thus, planting trees has environmental, fiscal, and social benefits.

It’s inspiring and exemplary of Elon University to not only give their graduates the gift of higher education, but also the oak sapling. Just as a student’s lessons at Elon will develop into a life-long career and vocation, the small oak sapling they receive at their commencement will grow into a tree that can better our earth’s environment and so much more. Hopefully all of Elon’s recent graduates will plant their oak trees, and that the 1,200 new oaks each year are just one small example we can follow to make a greater difference.

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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