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Ryan Johnson, Published May 03 2013

Concordia grads draw myriad inspirations from class rings

MOORHEAD - There’s a familiar ring to the way many Concordia College alumni show their school spirit.

Nationwide vendor Jostens says the college boasts one of the country’s highest percentages of students who buy a class ring – about 65 percent of each graduating class in recent years.

It’s a rate that’s second only to the U.S. military service academies such as West Point, said Concordia Alumni Relations Director Eric Johnson.

Shyla Thompson said she planned to skip the tradition, unable to justify the cost of a Cobber ring that now ranges from about $600 to more than $1,000, depending on the size and amount of gold. But she ended up with one anyway, and continues to wear it a decade after graduating from the private college.

In 2002, the then-junior found a handwritten note in her campus mailbox saying a “very special friend” wanted to buy her a class ring.

Thompson said she still doesn’t know who bought it, her questioning met with steadfast denials from her parents and closest college friends.

But she wears it nearly every day, not to “flaunt” her attendance at Concordia, but to serve as a personal reminder of the anonymous generosity.

Johnson said each graduate has their own reasons for wearing the ring, and their own stories of encountering fellow Cobbers across the globe who recognized each other because of the distinctive ring.

That includes a graduate vacationing on the Galapagos Islands who, unexpectedly, was approached by another tourist who noticed the gold and ruby ring and realized they were both Concordia graduates.

Or Michelle Koch, a 1988 graduate who said she’s met fellow Cobbers all over the U.S., Norway and Sweden just by wearing the ring.

“My favorite story of all time is being in Seligman, Ariz., on old Route 66, and sitting at the bar and all of a sudden this gentleman starts up a conversation,” she said. “He’d graduated in 1966 with my uncle. We had the same religion professors, the same biology professor. It just all stems from the recognition of the ring.”

‘Power of the ring’

Johnson said many graduates have stories about the Cobber ring helping them get an edge in a job interview, helping them land their first internship through an alumni connection or even finding a new group of friends after moving to another part of the country.

John Floberg said he’s worn his ring every day for the past three decades to represent his ties to the Moorhead area. He grew up in Hawley, Minn., and was the first in his family to earn a bachelor’s degree when he graduated from Concordia in 1985 with a religion degree.

The Cobber ring reminds him to live up to the school’s purpose as defined in the mission statement of trying to “influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women dedicated to the Christian life.” It’s a statement he’s strived for the past 22 years as an Episcopal clergy on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation straddling the North Dakota-South Dakota border south of Bismarck.

Karin Olson Held said she skipped buying a high school class ring, hoping that she’d end up at Concordia and get a Cobber ring. She achieved that goal, graduating in 2005 with a degree in English writing and political science.

“It’s a symbol of the family that I belong to, both the family I was born into and this is something we share, but bigger than that is the Cobber family,” she said.

A Concordia education is a family tradition. Olson Held’s grandparents, parents and two younger brothers all are fellow alumni, as is her husband.

While students at other colleges can buy class rings, Johnson said Concordia has built a strong tradition around its gold and ruby trademark by sticking with the same design for nearly 100 years.

“When people talk about the power of the ring, I think what they’re really talking about is the power of community,” he said.

That community will grow by more than 500 on Sunday when Concordia holds its spring commencement at 2:30 p.m. featuring an address by author, journalist and human rights advocate Roxana Saberi, a 1997 graduate of the college.

More than 2,000 North Dakota State University students will earn degrees this spring, with about 1,200 planning to participate in the spring commencement ceremony May 11 at the Fargodome, while Minnesota State University Moorhead will celebrate its spring commencement May 17.

Bethany Vincent said she’s been proud to wear her NDSU class ring for the past decade. As an employee with NDSU’s Division of Student Affairs, she said it just makes sense to wear the symbol of her alumni pride as she meets with prospective students and their parents.

She also wears the jewelry as a symbol of her accomplishment. After completing high school, she enrolled at Bemidji (Minn.) State University, but dropped out after a year because she just wasn’t ready for college.

Vincent tried again 10 years later, enrolling at NDSU in 1999 and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in business administration in 2004. She was the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“I think it’s a life achievement and people should be proud about it, and why not show that by having a class ring?” she said.

David Chivers, a representative with leading class ring vendor Jostens, said the company has seen increased sales in recent years after a slowdown because of the recession. Even though the rings are undoubtedly a “discretionary purchase,” he said they also are an important way of commemorating a major life achievement and a tradition that will stick around for generations to come.

“There’s lots of change in the world,” he said. “But a few of these time-honored rites of passage, while they’ve evolved, they’re still with us, and I’d expect they’d be with us for some time to come.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587