How student protests are changing college graduations Four years after COVID disrupted high school graduations, many college seniors are looking forward to their first real commencement. Student protests are forcing some to adjust their expectations.

How student protests are changing college graduations

How student protests are changing college graduations

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Four years after COVID disrupted high school graduations, many college seniors are looking forward to their first real commencement. Student protests are forcing some to adjust their expectations.

Graduates chant in support of Palestinians during the University of Michigan's commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday. Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP hide caption

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Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP
Graduates chant in support of Palestinians during the University of Michigan's commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

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

Katy Kildee/Detroit News via AP

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The unrest on many college campuses is running up against graduation season. Some schools have canceled big commencement ceremonies. Others are increasing security. NPR's education reporter Sequoia Carrillo is here to talk about it. Good morning, Sequoia.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So how could these campus protests disrupt graduation?

CARRILLO: So, a big tactic of these student groups is to set up camp in a very visible place. The protests often occupy the main quad of campus. The model for many schools has been Columbia, where students set up an encampment with tents and sleeping bags and were essentially living on the main quad. Harvard, Brown, Yale, Howard, Wesleyan, Cal Poly Humboldt all had or still have encampments of some kind, so these are not passing protests. They're sit-ins at the center of campus, the center that's usually full of students and their loved ones during graduation.

MARTIN: So we understand that USC and Columbia have canceled those main ceremony events. Are we going to see more of this?

CARRILLO: That's right. Yesterday, Columbia announced they're canceling the university-wide ceremony to focus their resources on smaller ceremonies where students will be able to walk. They're also relocating those ceremonies away from the main lawn. USC is a bit different. The school canceled the valedictorian speech after some Jewish student organizations raised concerns about Asna Tabassum, their valedictorian's past social media activity. After that, students rushed to her defense and marched on campus. Eventually, the administration canceled commencement, citing safety concerns. I spoke with many schools last week and it's clear they're on high alert. They don't want to cancel but some commencements will definitely look different.

MARTIN: You know, I have just to say, this is a big deal. Some students may be the first in their families to graduate from college. They may have family members coming in. And also, a lot of seniors in this year's graduating class also missed high school graduation four years ago because of the pandemic. I was just wondering if the students you've talked to talked about that.

CARRILLO: That's right, and students have a ton to say about this. Here, we can listen to them.

ISA JOHNSON: My name is Isa Johnson (ph), and I'm 21.

CARRILLO: Johnson is a journalism major at the University of Southern California. She's also about to graduate.

JOHNSON: I was really looking forward to this time of the year, to be able to, like, celebrate. And I was a 2020 graduate in high school as well. So we were finally going to be able to have this graduation and then within a whole week, it was, like, all taken away.

CARRILLO: She says she understands why students feel the need to protest, but a lot of her classmates are upset.

JOHNSON: They're kind of just like, you know, I want a normal graduation. I just wish things could be normal on campus. And I think it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

DANIEL SOLOMON: My name is Daniel Solomon, and I sit on Brown's student organizing committee on antisemitism.

CARRILLO: Solomon is a Jewish student from Miami at Brown University and has been pleasantly surprised with the way protests happened on his campus. The protesting students recently reached an agreement with administration to clear the encampment in exchange for a vote later this fall on demands that the university divest from companies doing business with Israel, which has been a big issue on many campuses.

SOLOMON: A big part of the discussion was not interrupting commencement and reunion weekend. I think generally the sentiment is that it's a beautiful day, we want to sit on the main green.

CARRILLO: I also spoke with students who are part of the protests at UCLA and Columbia. Many didn't want to be named or recorded 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. But on many campuses around the country, there's been little to no disruption from protests - classes are over and students' minds are elsewhere. Here's Charlie Burns (ph), a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia, who I spoke with last week.

CHARLIE BURNS: In my last-ever undergrad class, my professor, she 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 one or two raised their hands.

CARRILLO: 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. This will be his first official graduation.

BURNS: So any kind of disruption to my college graduation, especially my grandparents are visiting from Kansas City, that would be a huge bummer.

MARTIN: Sequoia, so I guess we're going to see graduations that look different this year.

CARRILLO: Definitely some will look different. The University of Michigan actually just held its commencement over the weekend, and the school set up designated protest areas outside ceremonies in an attempt to minimize disruptions, but students did interrupt the main commencement with chants. The protesters were peacefully escorted out by police after a few minutes.

At Indiana University Bloomington, at graduation this weekend as well, our colleagues at Indiana Public Media reported that students organized a graduation walkout, among other activities. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the school says it will not disperse their encampment, so it may still be up during graduation at the end of May. So far, the same goes for Harvard, where students are camped on the yard but not in a place that would interfere with commencement later this month. Bottom line, Michel, this is a developing story, and things are changing every day. And plans can definitely still change.

MARTIN: That's Sequoia Carrillo. Sequoia, thank you.

CARRILLO: Thank you.

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