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It's hard to stand out at graduation when dozens, hundreds or even thousands of your classmates are dressed in identical caps and gowns.
But some students individualize their appearance by decorating their mortarboards. Designs range from a simple lettered message like "Thanks, Mom and Dad!" to an elaborate craft project with images, glitter or 3-D constructions. Other students decorate caps with school logos, or fraternity or sorority letters.
At the University of Texas last year, Laurel Mohrman had a simple message on her cap: "DEBT FREE."
A 2014 Lehigh University grad, Lisa Glover, attached a miniature 3-D dinosaur to her cap; Glover launched a business called KitRex after graduating, selling kits to make paper dinosaurs.
Nicole Malli, a senior at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisconsin, wants to make sure her cap photographs well when she graduates May 17 because she's a commencement speaker. She's been looking on Pinterest for inspiration, and will probably use a pearl design because pearls are the official gemstone of her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega.
Ali Boden, who is getting her degree in sustainability and business from Arizona State in Tempe, will be taking a trip to Europe after graduation and hopes it's the first of many trips to see the world. She plans to decorate her cap with a map of the world and a phrase "along the lines of 'The world awaits,'" she said. She's been going to Michael's, the craft supply store, to figure out the best materials for lettering.
ASU even has a contest to recognize the best-decorated mortarboards.
Ruth Lauture is graduating from Kennesaw State University in Kennesaw, Georgia, with a degree in marketing, "so my cap is going to say, 'I mean business.' Something simple, but really meaningful." The word "mean" will be in pink, partly to help her mom pick her out from the crowd.
Marc Goldberg's mom had such a hard time finding him at his commencement from Indiana University in 1997 that it inspired him to create a business called TasselToppers.com. Goldberg has now shipped several hundred thousand customized mortarboard designs, which let buyers choose background colors and add images and text. There's artwork on the TasselToppers website, or you can upload your own. Universities have licensed their logos to the company, and some colleges are encouraging high school seniors to put their future alma maters' names on caps at 12th grade graduation ceremonies.
TasselToppers' finished designs cost $15 and are printed on durable plastic the size of the mortarboard, with reusable adhesives. That way, rented caps can be returned undamaged, and commencement policies that don't permit mortarboard decorations can be temporarily accommodated.
Goldberg says he's been amazed at "the creative stuff that people come up with," including touching messages "in loving memory of a mom or dad who could not be there. It's a concept that they're looking down on them at graduation and the cap is looking back up."
Also noteworthy, Goldberg says, are designs ordered by older students who may have taken years to finish their degrees ("49 years old, finally done"); single moms declaring, "I did it for my kids"; and designs honoring students who are the first in their family to graduate. He also partnered with Autism Speaks to include the organization's puzzle-piece logo on his website so that students with issues related to autism can add that symbol to their caps as they celebrate their achievements.
"Everyone has a story," Goldberg says.