Loose change: Why keeping your convocation coin is important

Mississippi is not as weird as the rest of the country thinks it is, but Mississippi State University sometimes does its best to live up to the stereotype. During my first week at MSU, I attended the "Fall Convocation." During this event, we were joined by Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant impersonators, who talked with MSU President Mark Keenum, wherein all three parties committed entirely to their respective roles. I was also given a commemorative coin, which, at the time, could not really turn my attention from former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

The tradition, according to the brief explanation given at the start, was to keep the coin for your years of schooling, then palm it when we shake Dr. Keenum's hand during graduation. Over time, though, my opinion on the coin has changed dramatically, and I believe that as far as school traditions go, convocation coins are among our best.

Let us start with the concept of material culture. According to Brittanica, material culture includes the aspects of our culture which would remain if humans disappeared. These are obvious things, like region-specific clothing or specialized serving dishes, but also include more nuanced differences within a larger culture. A house in Michigan will be decorated differently enough from a house in Mississippi that you could not only make a distinction, but even glean aspects of the inhabitant's personality and personal history.

Colleges tend to have some pretty good material culture. Think about the generations of collegiate letters on T-shirts, hundreds upon thousands of those felted flags and posters advertising our many D1 sports. The characterization of Mississippi State University would be easily discernible based on those alone.         

Consider your own material culture. From an outside perspective, most of our school merchandise would only really offer evidence that we all liked the same sports teams, as they say very little about the academic aspect of our school. Most MSU merchandise is sports related, certainly all of the cool stuff is, but does not necessarily feel reflective of the professional half of what I do in college.

There are, if we are being honest, at least two major cultures at any college. There is the culture of academia that the school advertises, but there is also the culture of what students actually do with their newfound freedom. I bought my MSU sports merchandise from the school, and yet, I do not mentally associate it with almost anything the administration would want me to. Game days are historically among the times where I have been least scholarly. The coin represents the times when I am being scholarly.

The heads side of the coin features the sculpture outside of the Mitchell Memorial Library. According to the Library FAQ's, the sculpture was done by Rod Moorhead, and is officially titled as "The Scholar," but lovingly referred to as "Mitch" by the library staff. Mitch was sculpted by the same guy who sculpted the angel sitting outside of the Chapel of Memories and is reminiscent of Rodin's "The Thinker." The tails side is our school crest, which boasts a sword, a shield and a key as its major iconography. According to MSU's visual identity standards, the sword represents the military aspect of our campus. The key, predictably, represents unlocking knowledge. The shield, for what it is worth, is apparently a reference to the fact that our school was assisted by the federal government via the land grant.

These icons very succinctly illustrate the essential characteristics of a student: thoughtfulness, commitment, curiosity and some amount of assistance from the federal government. This is not a joke; I am talking about FAFSA. As far as talismans go, the coin does a good job making itself universally applicable to the vast array of experiences which are represented in our student body. Furthermore, the coin is free when you buy tuition, meaning that it is not dependent on a student's personal life or finances whether they get to take home the memory.

The Fall Convocation ceremony was postponed due to COVID-19 again this year. I do not think this will be detrimental to anyone's college experience, but I do think that it is, at least, something of a bummer. Now that the world is returning to normalcy, little niceties like these are far more precious than they were to me before. It is just a coin, not even one you can spend, but for better or worse, I am at this school, and I believe the same coin which is worth nothing to me now will be worth much more in years to come.

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