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How student protests are changing college graduations

Updated May 07, 2024 at 12:05 PM ET

Many of this year's graduating college students were looking forward to their first formal commencement ceremony.

"I was a 2020 graduate in high school," says Isa Johnson, a senior at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Because of the pandemic, her high school graduation couldn't happen in person.

She was excited to finally get a traditional graduation this year, but the unrest on her campus has forced her to adjust her expectations.

After Jewish student organizations at USC raised concerns about valedictorian Asna Tabassum's past social media activity, the school cut Tabassum's speech from commencement. Other students rushed to her defense, and marched on campus in support. Eventually, the administration canceled the school's main commencement, citing safety concerns.

"We were finally going to be able to have... graduation," Johnson says, "and then within a whole week it was all taken away."

Across the country, protests on college campuses are running up against graduation season. Over the weekend, ceremonies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Indiana University Bloomington weremarked by protests. Graduating students in Michigan interrupted the ceremony with chants, Palestinian flags and banners. At Indiana's commencement, a plane with a banner that read "LET GAZA LIVE!" flew overhead and a group of graduating students staged a walkout.

Schools with upcoming ceremonies are announcing extra safety precautions and venue changes. On Monday, following weeks of campus tensions, Columbia University in New York City joined USC in canceling its main ceremony. It's also moving smaller, school-based ceremonies off the main lawn, where protestors have been gathering, and into an outdoor sports venue. Also on Monday, Emory University, in Atlanta, said it was moving the ceremony to a venue in Duluth, Ga., over 20 miles away.

Johnson, at USC, says she understands why students feel the need to protest, but a lot of her classmates are upset about how their graduation has been affected.

"They're kind of just like, you know, 'I want a normal graduation.' I just wish things could be normal on campus. The atmosphere on campus isn't what it usually is," she says. "I think it makes a lot of people uncomfortable."

How campuses are preparing for graduation

After Oct. 7 – when Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking at least 240 hostages – Israel retaliated by bombarding Gaza. That war has killed at least 34,622 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health.

In mid-April, college students on campuses around the country began protesting in support of Palestinians. Students are calling for their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel, among other demands. The movement has led to the arrest of at least 2,500 protestors, according to the Associated Press.

Students are organizing in highly visible spaces on campus, like the main quad of a school, and they're often opting for sit-ins rather than passing protests with a scheduled beginning and end. At several schools, students have formed encampments, pitching tents and living outside for days at a time.

At the same time, campuses are preparing to receive families eager to celebrate graduation.

At Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, Calif., the school is still cleaning up from a protest that ended with the student occupation of two campus buildings. The school says graduation ceremonies this coming weekend will be modified for security and held at three off-campus sites, as the campus remains closed.

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the school says it will not disperse the student encampment on the main lawn, so it may still be up during graduation at the end of May. At Harvard University, students are camped on Harvard Yard, but not in a place that would interfere with commencement later this month. Still, in a message to the school community on Monday, Interim President Alan Garber said students who continue to participate in the encampment "will be referred for involuntary leave."

At other colleges, administrators have negotiated agreements with protesting students. Protestors at Brown University recently agreed to clear their encampment in exchange for a divestment vote later this fall by the school's governing board.

Brown sophomore Daniel Solomon sits on the school's Student Organizing Committee on Antisemitism, and was involved in the negotiations.

"A big part of the discussion was not interrupting commencement and reunion weekend and to have a peaceful reading period, to have a peaceful finals period," he explains.

Other students have different priorities. NPR spoke with students who were part of the protests at UCLA and Columbia, two schools that saw confrontations between students as well as with police. Many didn't want to be named because they were concerned about doxxing, but they said they felt that raising awareness about what's happening in Gaza is more important than commencement ceremonies.

Not every campus is steeped in turmoil

Other campuses have seen little to no disruption from protests. At some of these schools, classes have wrapped for the year and students' minds are elsewhere. Charles Burns, a fourth year student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, described a scene from his last ever undergraduate class:

"My professor asked us, 'OK, if any of you guys were at, say, Columbia or Brown or any of these campuses, how many of you would be participating in an encampment?' And... this is like a huge class – like 150 to 200 kids – maybe like 1 or 2 raise their hands."

Over the weekend, the University of Virginia's small encampment did get broken up by police and several people were arrested. Since then things have been quiet, and Burns is hoping they stay that way. As with Johnson at USC, this will be his first official graduation. In 2020, because of the pandemic, he had a drive-through high school commencement.

He's excited to get the full experience this year, and to have his grandparents make the trip from Kansas City to Charlottesville.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sequoia Carrillo
Sequoia Carrillo is a reporter for NPR's Education Team. She covers K-12 education and regularly reports on issues like school segregation and infrastructure challenges for the network. She's also spent the past few years learning the ins and outs of the student loan system and hearing borrowers' stories. Her reporting on joint consolidation loans, a type of student loan that chained couples together even in cases of divorce and abuse, helped propel a fix into law.