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Turtle power: Beloit College bids farewell to grads

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Frank Schultz
Sunday, May 18, 2014

BELOIT—Shooting the breeze with Beloit College graduates is a trip down memory lane for someone who lived through the 1970s.

How often do you approach two random students in a line of hundreds in cap and gown and find out they're both keen on becoming midwives?

Or chat with an English student who plans to be poor and later build the ideal high school?

Following are some windows into the dreamers and doers encountered at Beloit College's 164th commencement ceremony Sunday:

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Fraternal cheer: Members of Phi Kappa Psi could be heard across the campus before the ceremomy, chanting like they were in boot camp: “Phi Kappa Psi! Live ever, die never! Phi Kappa Psi!”

They were welcoming their fraternity's seniors to alumni status.

Ian Thomson, president of the PKP Alumni Association, was pleased to be back at his alma mater.

“It is a lot of tradition going on, and it's cool,” Thomson said.

Noting the sunny day, Thomson predicted grads will go home with a nasty tan line across their foreheads, courtesy of those mortarboard caps.

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Dreamer: Coloradan Barak Ben-Amots is a PKP member who said the strident cheering was uncharacteristic: “We're actually huge nerds, and that's the only time we appear to fit the hegemonic, masculine standard.”

Ben-Amots plans to experience life, be poor, become a teacher and then build the perfect high school.

That dream was the outgrowth of a paper he wrote in his freshman year.

“I've never stopped writing that final paper for that class,” he said.

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Going abroad: Graduate Marian Witaker of Des Moines, Iowa, said her favorite memory will be a recent flash flood on campus. Students swam in floodwaters.

“We all decided to go outside and play, and we were drenched. … It was the community, the spontaneity of, like, everybody going with the flow—everything's acceptable.”

Witaker's post-graduation plan is a one-way ticket: “I don't know what I'm doing, but I'm going to England for the summer, and I don't' expect to be back for a while,” she said. “I don't know where I'm going from there. Maybe New Zealand.”

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Flat-top art: Outlandish mortarboards ruled the day, including one that had tiny growing plants, but Chicagoan Meghan Walsh just fastened on her cap a snapshot of herself and her best friends basking in the sun.

“They say college is the best time of your life, and it really is. I found that here,” she said.

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Sci fi surprise: Grad Paul McDonald of Northbrook, Ill., said one of his fondest memories will be a first-year class in “gender and sexuality in science fiction and fantasy.”

“It showed me how interesting this college can be,” he said.


Changes: Hannah “Lucile” Tepsa, from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, is headed for Johns Hopkins University to study midwifery.

Tepsa had come to Beloit to study philosophy, but a professor encouraged her to switch to biology.

The college helped her discover her passions, she said, and so did a semester in Denmark.

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Psychedelic: A surprise graduation guest, arranged in the space of one week, was country musician Sturgill Simpson, whose new song, “Turtles All the Way Down,” references a fable about the world being flat and supported by an enormous turtle.

Where does the turtle stand? On another turtle, of course, and to make that work, it's “turtles all the way down.”

College President Scott Bierman, who has embraced the turtle as a symbol of what makes the college unique, heard about Simpson's performance the previous Sunday on public radio's “A Prairie Home Companion” and invited the artist to perform.

Speaking with a reporter before the ceremony, Simpson wondered what he had gotten himself into.

“We're about to drop a couple of hardcore psychedelic drug references. We'll see how that goes,” he said.

Sure enough: “Marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, DMT/They all change the way I see, but love's the only thing that ever saved my life,” he sang.

Simpson got polite applause from students sun-baking under their mortarboards, but Bierman later suggested they might be downloading the song on iTunes.

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Turtle power: Bierman touts the turtle as a metaphor for what he sees as the college's ability to produce graduates who think deeply and do things that improve the world while leading them to fulfilling lives.

“On this big, gorgeous day we come together as one big bale of basking turtles,” was how he began his address.

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Freshness: Sophia Maloney gave the class address, also embracing the idea that Beloit College is special: “We have learned how to be, as R. Kelly said, 'hot and fresh out the kitchen.'”


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