Decorated graduation caps reflect joy, angst of students

UNLV associate professor Sheila Bock (Photo: AP)

The black letters contrast sharply with the graduation cap’s red fabric. They spell: “Vuela tan alto como puedas sin olvidar de donde vienes.”

“Fly as high as you can without forgetting where you come from.”

That’s the message that Brenda Romero, who crossed the border from Mexico with her mother when she was 2, wants to spread as she graduates Saturday from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Her decorated mortarboard is part of an emerging trend in which students are pushing against the formality of graduation ceremonies and choosing to stand out in a sea of monochromatic caps and gowns by expressing joy, angst or, increasingly, political opinions.

Photos shared on social media show mortarboards adorned with expressions of gratitude toward family members and hope for the future, with phrases like “The best is yet to come” and “On to my new dream.”

Plenty also highlight the cost of higher education. “This hat was $95,990,” one cap reads. Another states: “Game of Loans. Interest is coming.”

And caps proclaiming that “Nevertheless, she persisted” abound.

The informal practice, which is not necessarily encouraged by institutions, has been around for years and is used by students to express their individuality. But over the past couple of years, it has taken a more political tone, said Sheila Bock, a folklorist and professor at UNLV.

“That desire of wanting to make aspects of one’s self visible that are otherwise invisible has always been there,” said Bock, who is researching how and why students decorate their mortarboards.

“But within the last couple of years, those types of assertions — particularly as they relate to citizenship, places of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation — have taken more significance as they move into this mode of public display.”

Bock has been tracking what students put on their caps through social media posts, as well as by attending commencements, photographing mortarboards and interviewing dozens of students.

Romero, who is earning a degree in human services, has been shielded from deportation and granted a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She was able to attend community college and later UNLV because the federal program was authorized shortly after she graduated from high school, allowing her to work sometimes up to three jobs to pay portions of tuition and fees not covered by scholarships.

She said she looked up quotes to put on her cap for about a semester. She chose to also include marigolds — the flowers used to decorate altars for the Day of the Dead — to honor her grandfather, who died last year.

“This quote really resonated with me just because of my parents’ struggles and everything that they had to overcome so that I could graduate,” said Romero, who now works at a law firm and plans to apply to law school. “It pays tribute not just to what I’m doing, but to where I come from and everything that has made me who I am.”

Previous UNLV ceremonies have featured caps with messages like “Si Se Puede, Here To Stay” and “1 ex, 2 kids, 9 jobs, 1 husband, 1 addiction, 13 years, 127 credits, 66K loans = 1 college grad!!!” Last May, a student placed a photo of President Donald Trump next to the question “What does my political science degree mean now?”

Some students leave politics and finances aside, and instead include Bible verses or show their love for each other.

Anna Gingrich and Anthony Bardis will tie the knot a week after graduation. So, she decorated their caps with bridal embellishments. She covered the mortarboards with gold paper that matches the color of her wedding shoes. Hers features a wedding dress and the word “bride,” while his has a tuxedo and “groom.”

“It’s kind of just like professing to the world that graduation isn’t the end for us — we are about to start our lives, and that’s a big deal,” said Gingrich, who is getting a degree in nutrition science and dietetics. “When somebody sees his, I want them to look for mine, and when someone sees mine, I want them to look for his.”