Graduation ceremony is opportunity for expression at Beloit College

Class of 2011
2011-05-13T07:00:00Z 2011-05-13T11:00:52Z Graduation ceremony is opportunity for expression at Beloit CollegeDEBORAH ZIFF | dziff@madison.com | 608-252-6234 madison.com

With final exams over and a job in the bag, Nathan Landau has one more pivotal decision to make before he graduates from Beloit College on Sunday.

What to put on his mortarboard cap?

At Beloit College, it's not enough to simply wear the formal accoutrements of graduation: a gown and tasseled cap. Many graduates also build elaborate designs to put on their mortarboards, the oddly-shaped caps traditional for commencement.

The result is a sea of graduates dotted with rubber chickens, foam brains, exit signs, chess sets, colorful kites and stuffed animals. Once, a student even glued a jar with a live goldfish, named Emily, to his hat.

"There's no doubt we take it to another level," said Bill Flanagan, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. "Beloit has a very creative, individualistic student body. This is an opportunity to showcase that, and showcase it to a lot of people."

No one's sure exactly when the tradition emerged at the small liberal arts college. The Beloit College archivist dates it back to the early 1990s. It started with masking tape messages common at graduations, such as, "Thanks Mom and Dad" or "For Hire." 

But soon, students began to add three-dimensional figures, one-upping each other with new feats of physics and fits of fancy.

Last year's graduation speaker, David Axelrod, then-senior advisor to President Barack Obama, remarked that the students had "the most creative cap design of any graduating class that I have come across."

Many Beloit College seniors try to decorate their caps with items that symbolize their educational experience, a tall order for a surface area the size of a frisbee. It's as if they view the square, flat caps as an empty platter to serve up their life stories. 

Michelle Donahue, a biology and creative writing major who will graduate on Sunday, perched a depiction of evolution on her cap, with figurines ascending from a fish prototype to an upright man. To top it off, she added a figurine of British author Jane Austen.

Having studied abroad in both the Galapagos Islands and England, Donahue said she tried to encapsulate her college education.

But she also recognizes the silliness of it.

"Graduation tends to be this solemn, serious event," said the 22-year-old from La Verne, Calif. "That's not really the Beloit style."

Hot glue guns, saws, elastic, and string are used to affix the designs. Sometimes a balancing act is required. It's not uncommon to see a Beloit College graduate hanging on to his or her cap with one hand while grasping for the diploma with the other.

It helps that Beloit College students purchase their caps and gowns (total cost is about $40), so they can feel free to wreak as much havoc as they want.

Landau, 23, of Portland, is considering putting an inkpot, quill and scroll on his hat to signify his experience as a creative writing major. But he's still got a little time.

"Tradition goes these hats don't really get developed until the night before graduation, in a fit of spontaneous creativity," he said.

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