Evanston news delivered free to your inbox! 

Northwestern University recently boasted in an alumni magazine that its 2013 graduates are ready to  “rock the world.” But some may just take to the rocks  –  and bring along their paint cans.

The painted boulders edging NU’s Lake Michigan landfill have been a campus fixture for decades. They sing with color and poetry and reflect the hopes, feelings and philosophies of students through the years, including this year’s graduating class. One grad painted a rock purple thanking her family for putting her through college. A group of grads painted another rock to say, “Let the kids dance.”

Perhaps it is fitting that world famous ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov was the speaker for NU’s  155th commencement June 21. At the Ryan Field event, he looked out at a sea of young people in purple robes and told them to “Figure out what pushes you. If it isn’t the arts, what is your trigger? What makes you ask big questions?” Advice not unlike that written on the colorful lakefront rocks.

Of course, purple dominates with rocks that say: “Go Light Your World!” and “We were Wildcats when Wildcats were wild!”

But every color is represented. A yellow boulder declares, “I am emperor.” A red rock urges, “Live it up!” A lavender rock with a U.S. map says, “Friendship knows no distance.” A blue one says simply, “Pursuit.” Another just plain rock-colored rock has a rainbow of colored letters saluting WNUR radio.

The rocks picture sailboats, hearts, girls and peace symbols. They profess love, lasting friendship and belief in Christianity. They wish friends and loved ones happy birthday and promise, “I will always love you.” A series of signs up and down the rocks repeats, “No more heroes.”

Some boulders get painted over every year. Others manage to survive, including 2010 rocks saying, “Boneheads Rule,” “All I do is … win!” and “Ellen, Congrats on beating teen pregnancy.” Lasting even longer, “Ken & Becca” live on in a heart dated 2006 and the heart of “Lindsay & Drew” goes all the way back to 2004.

Many rocks are not dated or signed. They feature words to live by like “Life is short,” “We love our dogs,” “Infinity” and “The trouble is, you think you have time.”

Some are simple, like “You’re my Rock.” Others read like textbooks, such as the one quoting French philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “Omega Point,” that says “Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love. At the summit you will find yourselves united with those who from every direction have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.”

And rising above the rocks is yet another sign, white paint on a cyclone fence facing south toward the Chicago skyline. This minimalist sign just says, “Be Happy!”