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Beloit College commencement shows individuality

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NEIL W. JOHNSON
May 16, 2011
— When you’re a small liberal arts college, it’s the funky little touches that count: the weird traditions, the quirky asides—the inside jokes.

Yet on graduation day at a small college, the spirit of the individual gets ramped up a little. The freak flag flies a little prouder and a little higher.


Take for example, Beloit College’s 2011 commencement Sunday.


On the lawn of the college, 300 students and a crowd of families and undergrads gathered for a ceremony that featured a keynote address by human rights champion and former South Africa Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone.


The ceremony also wove in the off-kilter: goofy decorated hats, a musical arrangement of a Beach Boys song and a speech on turtle sex.


At the rear of the commencement seating, undergrads perched on blankets laid atop of half a dozen Indian mounds that are part of an ancient turtle effigy that is rooted in local culture and is part of the 165-year-old college’s identity.


Aptly, Beloit College President Scott Bierman waxed on the awkwardness of tortoise procreation, relating during an address to graduates Sunday the turtle-related philosophies of American economist Dr. Harry Markowitz and poet Ogden Nash, among others.


Bierman likened the college’s graduates to the 200-million-year-old tortoise species: Both, he said, are awkward but resourceful, laughable but serious and offbeat, yet responsible, prolific and enduring.


Awkwardness and individuality “does not reduce us. It manages to redeem us. All of us,” Bierman told the graduates, many who sported mortarboard caps embellished with plastic toys, model airplanes and other items, part of a well-established tradition at the college.


Beloit College’s fierce independent streak was not lost on Goldstone. He once served as a special chairman on international studies at Beloit College.


Goldstone is widely credited for efforts that helped South Africa break away from apartheid and for spurring international human rights tribunals in Rwanda, Kosovo and the Gaza strip.


In his address Sunday, Goldstone credited the United States’ involvement in those humanitarian efforts, and he told the graduates that American individualism—the belief that the actions of one can affect many—is what makes their country great.


The cover art on Beloit College’s commencement program shows a drawing of two people atop a bridled tortoise, on a hill that overlooks a sweeping horizon.


In a weird way, the picture lays it all out there. Goldstone brought it home.


“Keep faith that what you do matters,” he told the graduates. “Never lose hope that you can bring change. Live your lives in light of the promise of what we all might achieve together.”


Beloit College 2011 commencement: Hat décor and other funky stuff

For 20-plus years, Beloit College has a quirky tradition of graduates decorating their mortarboard caps


before commencement to celebrate their chosen major, or just to show off a spark of irreverence and


individuality. It’s a small palette for creativity, but here are some examples of flair that graduates used to dress up their mortarboards at Sunday’s commencement:


-- A mounted security camera with blinking lights


-- Origami


-- Gilded figurines in karate poses


-- A bird’s nest


-- What appeared to be a crumpled-up thesis


-- A painted cardboard house


-- A “Jolly Roger”-style pirate flag


Other facts, figures and tidbits about the commencement:


-- Number of graduates: About 300


-- Keynote Speaker: Former South Africa Supreme Court Justice Richard Goldstone.


-- Number of Indian mounds located on the college lawn: At least six


-- Musical selection from recessional: The Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”


-- Number of spectators seated on a denim loveseat: Three



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