Columbia and Commencement Through the Eyes of Seniors

Following the NYPD sweep of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment,” lockdown of campus, and the official cancellation of the University commencement ceremony, five graduating seniors from across the four undergraduate schools comment on their experience in their final weeks at Columbia.

From the NYPD raid of Hamilton Hall and sweep of the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on April 30th to the cancellation of the university-wide commencement ceremony, the end of Columbia’s semester has been unprecedented. Professors, fellow students, and administration members are looking to the graduating seniors with concern and expectations of disappointment. The Bulletin spoke with five seniors spanning the four undergraduate colleges to get an insight into the past few weeks.

Graduation often evokes strong emotions – nostalgia and excitement for some, anxiety and anticipation for others. But the recent events at Columbia have added new layers of complexity to these emotions. For some graduating seniors this year, the absence of a commencement ceremony feels less like a loss and more like the continuation of a trend. Having missed out on a traditional high school graduation due to COVID and starting college online, E.L. (CC ‘24) says that though graduation felt very important, they had already adopted a “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude around such milestone events.

“In a weird way, I think that [COVID] made me not care about [commencement] as much – just because I hadn’t experienced it before,” says L.R. (CC ‘24). “I’d rather not have a graduation, honestly, than have one that’s been brought down to a sad skeleton of what it used to be – that’s what I had in high school. I think that it’s more sad to have it in that way, because you are reminded of what it could have been instead of what you’re having.”

For others, the mounting uncertainty around commencement culminating in its cancellation actually made commencement feel more essential. Despite initially being unsure if she would attend the University commencement, A.B. (GS ‘24) says attending commencement became very important to her after protests began: “I really wanted to go and just be a part of something big since every other event was ruined.”

In the weeks prior to canceling commencement, Columbia President Minouche Shafik repeatedly expressed that she did “not want to deprive thousands of students and their families and friends of a graduation celebration.” The senior experience – and commencement, in particular – became a bargaining tool for the University, attempting to incentivize protestors to voluntarily disperse from the encampment. The senior response to this has been mixed. 

Some seniors reported frustration and anger, saying that it is an example of the University “weaponizing our emotions as a scapegoat and excuse for their actions,” as L.K. (BC ‘24) puts it. 

“[The University administrations] are almost putting words in our mouths and saying that graduation is something we should be caring about more. It feels more a distraction than a genuine call for recognition of the seniors,” says E.L. “What makes Shafik and her statements about this very, very insidious is that she’s sowing the seeds of division, in which other students are looking at the protesters as the problem and not actually her decisions as the problem.”

Other seniors, like A.B., say they felt heard by the administration’s recognition of the unique challenges they were facing, appreciating the “thought and making people know that senior experience is important.” 

“I was very much looking forward to graduating this time and celebrating with my family for the first time at an actual graduation,” says A.B. “I was also very much looking forward to all the graduation events over the last month. I’ve spent four years here and studied all the time, so I was looking forward to having an actual break. But, all of that is ruined.”

G.R. (SEAS ‘24) calls Shafik’s inclusion of the affected senior experience in community announcements “valid,” due to the unusual nature of the end of the school year: “Our last year wasn’t like how we imagined it. I couldn’t concentrate on assignments or finals because of the noise and my worry.”

As graduating seniors begin to come to terms with the cancellation of their commencement and the tumultuous end to their undergraduate experience, many have grappled with their role within the University and the broader societal implications of the University’s decisions.

“It feels weird to think that I would be representing the success of the University, because I don’t want to be complicit in that,” says L.K. “It feels like [graduation] is no longer just about celebrating my accomplishments as a student and the accomplishments of my peers, but a way for the University to kind of show face and act like everything is normal. In the past two weeks, [many Columbia] students have been arrested. How can we possibly pretend like things are normal right now?”

“The past few weeks have shown me that the student body is in great pain and everyone is stressed and bummed out. Commencement would’ve felt weird if it would’ve happened,” says G.R. “But I still would’ve liked to have had it, since it’s not to celebrate Columbia but rather my and my classmates’ accomplishments that have been very hard-earned.”

“It has made me view commencement as a kind of tool to weaponize what’s been going on on campus and turn us against each other,” adds L.R. “As much as I’d like to have commencement, I’d rather not have my peers brutalized. Using commencement as a threat, when the actuality of it was that they were going to cancel it, makes me feel like it was just used as a non-good-faith bargaining tool.”

Disappointment and anger seem common among all the seniors that the Bulletin spoke with. However, where these emotions are directed seems split between two groups: the University administration and the protestors involved in the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment.”

A.B. says that, though she was “not a fan” of the encampment and protests from the beginning, the cancellation of commencement made her “a lot more furious” at the protestors.

“I thought that the entire senior experience got a little too political, which it did not need to be,” remarked A.B. “Any time someone would comment [on this], they would be labeled as if they’re supporting a genocide, which I thought was too extreme. And honestly, it’s no one’s business.”

On the other hand, E.L. feels that the cancellation of commencement was completely in the hands of the administration, both at Columbia and other institutions facing similar challenges: “I just want for these University presidents to recognize that they are the ones that are responsible for ruining the celebration that graduation is supposed to be.”

“The cancellation of commencement hasn’t changed the way I viewed the protests. If the university truly wanted to put up the graduation bleachers, they could’ve done it, especially in the week that most people weren’t allowed into campus,” says G.R. “I lost money and time on campus for nothing,” citing the Columbia lockdown that kept many students from the Morningside campus for over a week.

The sentiments of these graduating seniors reflect the complex blend of emotions present on campus, woven with pointed disappointment, frustration, and passion.  

“I never considered that those big milestones were something that I could lose,” says E.L., summarizing what many seniors seem to feel. “After not having my high school prom or graduation and not starting college in the normal way, I kind of realized sometimes life absolutely does not go the way you expect it to.”