Higher education has been transformed in countless ways over the past few centuries, but one thing remains largely unchanged: the mortar boards worn on graduation day.
However, the academic caps donned by graduates since the days of 12th-century Bologna are now starting to look quite different in the US at least, where students are increasingly opting to personalise the normally plain headgear with everything from pop culture references and messages to proud parents to job requests and, increasingly, anti-Trump political statements.
The trend is particularly prevalent among graduates from immigrant families, said Sheila Bock, associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has been documenting the growing phenomenon since 2015.
“We’re noticing many more political messages, with people of colour marking themselves as such in the graduation space,” Dr Bock told Times Higher Education. “This is a diverse community that has been particularly targeted and they have a desire to speak back using the graduation space.”
Messages thanking families are also common among graduates from Latino communities, added Dr Bock, whose project “Decorated Mortarboards: Forms and Meanings” is supported by the Center for Folklore Studies at Ohio State University.
“There is a real awareness that this isn’t just their achievement – it belongs to the whole family and they are simply following on from what their parents have started,” said Dr Bock, who, with student researchers, has interviewed many of the graduates donning the individualised mortar boards.
Other graduation caps allude to the financial and personal difficulties of higher study (“Game of Loans”, “Nevertheless, she persisted”) and some reference the wider struggles overcome to reach university, with one resourceful graduate fitting “1 ex, 2 kids, 9 jobs, 1 husband, 1 addiction, 13 years, 127 credits, 66k loans = 1 college grad!!!” on to her cap.
Are universities, however, less keen on students getting creative and colourful with their graduation caps?
“Larger universities have embraced it,” said Dr Bock, who said that this was quite different from the zero-tolerance policy on adornments found in high school graduations.
“This has caused many issues, with students from Native American backgrounds going to court because they wanted to hang a feather on their hats.”
With the graduation caps getting ever more creative, students are now light years away from the “Hire Me” and “Thanks Mum & Dad” messages seen a few years ago, Dr Bock added.
“We’re seeing many very personal messages, which are often humorous and profound, and designed with a high level of creativity,” she explained. “Students are very aware that this is their chance to make their own statement to the world.”