It’s that time of year! Commencement. On Saturday, May 18, when another UNLV class walks across the stage to receive their diplomas, many of the students will proudly wear decorated mortarboards that tell their personal stories and dreams, share their pride and accomplishment, and offer gratitude to those who supported their journey.
These colorful and creative mortarboards have become a part of the visual landscape of the commencement ceremony. Did you ever wonder what’s behind it?
Dr. Sheila Bock certainly did – and she has been paying close attention to this tradition since 2011. In fact, Bock, folklorist and associate professor in the UNLV Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic Studies, is in the midst of a research project on the practice of decorating mortarboards.
“After looking at thousands of decorated mortarboards and hearing from hundreds of graduates about their motivations for participating in this practice, I have found that the ways people embellish their mortarboards are both personal and larger-than-personal,” said Bock. “That is, these mortarboard displays can tell us a lot about the perspectives and experiences of individual graduates, but they can also offer insight into the larger social, economic, and political factors shaping people’s experiences with higher education.”
The University Libraries partnered with Bock and three students co-curators – Claudia Chiang-Lopez, Brenda Carolina Cruz Gomez, and Nicole Espinosa – to create a digital exhibit now on display across three screens in the space in the Leisure Reading Zone on the second floor of Lied Library.
“¡Sí Se Pudo! The Art and Stories of Latinx Graduation Caps at UNLV” captures images of the decorated mortarboards of Latinx graduates who participated in UNLV’s fall and spring commencement ceremonies from December 2016 to December 2018. The digital exhibit also features graduates’ explanations of their motivations for decorating their caps, drawing on interviews conducted by Bock and several research assistants.
An exhibit opening reception will be held on Tuesday, May 14, from 4:30 to 6 p.m. The reception is open to the UNLV community and will be held in the space on the 2nd floor of Lied Library in the Leisure Reading Zone. Light refreshments will be served. Bock and the co-curators will be available to talk about the exhibit.
“UNLV is a Minority Serving Institution and a Hispanic Serving Institution, and it is important for students to see themselves represented in the spaces of this institution,” she explained. “It is our hope that this exhibit serves as just one small way of doing this.”
The hashtag #LatinxGradCaps inspired the exhibit, said Bock. Bock continues to collect data for this research project and invites graduates and alumni of all backgrounds to share their stories and images of their decorated caps via this website:
In addition to the student co-curators, several other students worked with Bock on the research project, documenting this tradition through photographs and interviews; those students are Jacqueline Eddy, Sofia Molina Gallardo, Jacqueline Kupvitz, and Alissia Medina.
Kee Choi and Amy Check of the Library Technologies Division in the University Libraries helped to create the digital exhibit using content from Bock and her co-curators.
The digital exhibit will be on display in Lied Library throughout the summer.