How student protests are changing college degrees: NPR

Graduates sing in support of the Palestinians during the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP

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Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP

Graduates sing in support of the Palestinians during the University of Michigan’s commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP

Many of this year’s graduating students were looking forward to their first official commencement ceremony.

“I graduated from high school in 2020,” says Isa Johnson, a senior at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Due to the pandemic, her high school graduation could not take place in person.

She was excited to finally graduate with a traditional degree this year, but the unrest on her campus forced her to adjust her expectations.

After USC Jewish student organizations expressed concerns about valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s past social media activity, the school interrupted Tabassum’s speech early on. Other students rushed to her defense and marched around campus in support. Ultimately, the administration canceled the school’s main start, citing security concerns.

“We were finally going to be able to … graduate,” Johnson says, “and then within a whole week, everything was taken away.”

Across the country, protests on college campuses collide with graduation season. Over the weekend, ceremonies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Indiana University in Bloomington were marred by protests. Michigan graduate students interrupted the ceremony with chants, flags and Palestinian banners. In early Indiana, a plane with a banner reading “LET GAZA LIVE!” flew over and a group of graduate students staged a walkout.

Schools holding upcoming ceremonies are announcing additional safety precautions and venue changes. On Monday, after weeks of tension on campus, Columbia University in New York joined USC in canceling its senior ceremony. It also involves moving smaller school ceremonies off the main lawn, where protesters have gathered, to an outdoor sports venue. Also Monday, Emory University in Atlanta announced it was moving the ceremony to Duluth, Georgia, more than 20 miles away.

Johnson, at USC, says she understands why students feel the need to protest, but many of her classmates are upset about how their degree was affected.

“They just say, you know, ‘I want a regular degree.’ I just wish things were normal on campus. The atmosphere on campus is not what it usually is,” she said. “I think it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.”

How Campuses Prepare for Graduation

After October 7 – when Hamas attacked Israel, killing more than 1,200 people and taking at least 240 hostages – Israel responded by bombing Gaza. This war has killed at least 34,622 Palestinians, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

In mid-April, students on college campuses across the country began demonstrating in support of the Palestinians. The students are asking, among other things, their schools to divest from companies that do business with Israel. The movement led to the arrest of at least 2,500 protesters, according to the Associated Press.

Students organize in highly visible spaces on campus, such as a school’s main campus, and they often opt for sit-ins rather than participating in protests that have a scheduled start and end. At several schools, students formed camps, pitching tents and living outside for several days.

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

At Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, California, the school is still cleaning up after a protest that ended with the student occupation of two campus buildings. The school says next weekend’s graduation ceremonies will be modified for safety reasons and will take place at three off-campus sites, with the campus remaining closed.

At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the school says it won’t disperse the student encampment on the Main Lawn, so it could still be standing during graduation at the end of May . At Harvard University, students are camping out on Harvard Yard, but not in a location that could interfere with the start of school later this month. Still, in a message to the school community Monday, Interim President Alan Garber said students who continue to participate in camp “will be directed toward involuntary leave.”

At other colleges, administrators have negotiated deals with protesting students. Protesters at Brown University recently agreed to clear their encampment in exchange for a divestment vote later this fall by the school’s board of trustees.

Brown sophomore Daniel Solomon serves on the school’s student organizing committee on anti-Semitism and was involved in the negotiations.

“A lot of the discussion was not to interrupt Homecoming and Homecoming weekend and have a peaceful reading period, a peaceful finals period,” he explains.

Other students have different priorities. NPR spoke with students who participated in the protests at UCLA and Columbia, two schools that saw clashes between students as well as police. Many did not want to be named because they were concerned about doxxing, but they said they felt raising awareness about what is happening in Gaza was more important than the opening ceremonies.

Not all campuses are in turmoil

Other campuses were little or not disrupted by the protests. At some of these schools, classes are over 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 undergraduate class:

“My professor asked us, ‘OK, if any of you were at, say, Columbia or Brown or one of those campuses, how many of you would attend camp?’ .it’s like a huge class – like 150 to 200 kids – maybe one or two raise their hands.

Over the weekend, the small encampment at the University of Virginia was dismantled by police and several people were arrested. Since then, things have remained calm and Burns hopes it stays that way. As with Johnson at USC, this will be his first official degree. In 2020, due to the pandemic, he was able to return to high school with a drive-thru service.

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

“Any sort of disruption to my college degree…that would be a huge disappointment. So I can only hope that doesn’t happen. We’ll see.”

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