Barnard College Celebrates the Commencement of 2024 Graduates

The majority of graduating seniors protested against President Rosenbury during the ceremony following weeks of on- and off-campus protests, suspensions, student evictions, and police raids.

Photography by Jenna Shen

On Wednesday May 15th, the Barnard Class of 2024 celebrated the 132rd Commencement at Radio City Music Hall in a tense ceremony marked by student protest.

The 2024 Commencement concludes a semester of deep tensions on campus and some criticism by students and faculty over how the Barnard administration has handled issues regarding free speech, demonstration, and increased police presence near and around campus. 

After Columbia President Minouche Shafik canceled the 2024 Columbia University Commencement on May 6th, many Barnard graduating seniors worried that their graduation may be affected as well. 

No Barnard administrators spoke at the ceremony. Instead, Barnard Professor of Chemistry Dr. Christian Rojas addressed the graduates on behalf of the Barnard faculty and expressed an “appreciation for all of the things you’ve shown us, whether reasoned, passionate, or both.” He ended his remarks by reciting a Philip Larken poem which was recommended to him by a student and asked the audience to pay attention to the final lines: “Last year is dead, they seem to say,/ Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

Three seniors were recognized for their commitment to the school. Board of Trustee member emerita Frances Sadler ‘72 presented Mariame Sissoko with the Frank Gilbert Bryson Prize, which is awarded by the senior class to the senior who contributed the most to Barnard over four years. Anisha Prakash (BC‘24) and Sofia Chu DeChristofaro (BC‘24) received the Alicia L. Lawrence Memorial Award for exemplary leadership and contributions to the College. 

Members of the Senior Fund announced that the senior class gift would be designated to two on-campus initiatives to support students: Access Barnard to support international, first-generation, and low-income students; and the mental health support fund at the new Francine LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being set to open in the fall. The senior class raised more than $8,100 with over 55% of the class participating.

While President Rosenbury did not provide a commencement address during the ceremony, many student leaders spoke on their Barnard education. 

Sisters Deepa Irakam (BC‘24) and Roopa Irakam (BC‘24) reflected on their experience within the Barnard community, that “step up when those in responsibility do not” to support one another. Student Governance Board (SGA) President Mariame Sissoko (BC‘24) and Senior Class President Magan Chin (BC‘24) gave speeches reflecting on their identity and the integrity of the Class of 2024. Chin charged her fellow graduates to continue to “draw a compass of what is right and just” and “dare to dream bigger.” 

Sissoko sharply criticized the administration’s handling of the past eight months. During their speech, Sissoko spoke about their bittersweet experience at Barnard, citing a four years “marked by moments of disillusionment” in the administration, but also great pride in their education and the community their classmates have built together. 

“It is the support to protest, to create community, to create encampments, and the support to stand up and speak out against the injustices in the world we see around us, no matter who tries to silence you,” Sissoko said.

Sissoko spoke highly of their formative experience with the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship and the mentorship of staff at the Athena Center, Access Barnard, Student Engagement and Experience, CARES, Facilities, and Liz’s Place. 

Sissoko also said that walking across the commencement stage “is a privilege over 15,000 children in Gaza will never see” and urged the graduating class and Barnard faculty to not “become the face of oppressive structures that gate kept you from those spaces to begin with.” 

SGA President Mariame Sissoko at Barnard’s 2024 Commencement.

Within the speech, the SGA President stated “We shall not be moved” which prompted a large group of graduates to sing the protest song of the same name. Protesters arrested during the “Gaza Solidarity Encampment” on April 18th and the Hamilton Hall occupation on April 30th sang the same song. 

Sissoko’s remarks received a standing ovation from the majority of the audience members and graduates. Other audience members began chanting “Bring them home” and “Free, free Palestine,” which began a short exchange of shouting until the next speakers arrived at the podium. 

The ceremony featured a keynote address from distinguished scholar, author, and president emerita of Smith College, Brown University, and Prairie View A&M University Dr. Ruth J. Simmons. 

Moved to tears by the student leaders’ remarks, Simmons paused before her address to express her gratitude to be speaking to the Barnard graduates. “I find myself unduly emotional, not really so much because of this honor,” she said,  “but because of the privilege of being with you today and listening … listening to the wonderful remarks that I’ve heard. I will never forget having been here today. ” Simmons then announced that she will personally match the senior gift of $8,100, bringing the total to $16, 200. 

Dr. Ruth J. Simmons at Barnard’s 2024 Commencement.

In her following remarks, Simmons spoke about the importance of reflective thinking and respecting many cultures, calling for an “attitude of broad inclusion to facilitate ubiquitously shared participation in governing” society, and asked graduates to “reach into the reserve of learning that you’ve had here for the fuel and inspiration that will take you to unimagined heights.” 

Simmons ended in reflection on her own undergraduate experience during the Civil Rights Movement, one that was “surrounded by hatred, violence, and an uncertain future.”

“I hope you will all be generous in your efforts to seek a better and more just world,” Simmons said. “I know I hope you’ll look for opportunities where your beautiful example can shine, inspiring others to accept the obligation to respect and care for others. I hope, in short, that at all that you do, you will honor the education that you have received here by using it for good.”

After Simmon’s address, Barnard Dean Leaslie Grinage and President Rosenbury briefly came to the podium to announce the commencement of the Barnard class. 

The majority graduating seniors stood up and turned their backs to Rosenbury as she walked to the podium. 

As Dean Grinage read student names, Rosenbury stood on stage to shake the graduates’ hands. The majority of students walked past her, many pausing center-stage to hold signs and flags out to the audience, or to show the audience their decorated regalia. 

Graduates wore keffiyeh-patterned stoles and red poppies pinned with the names of Palestinian children killed in Gaza to the lapel of their gowns. Several graduates carried Palestinian flags, signs calling for disclosure of financial ties to Israel and divestment, or decorated regalia with the Palestinian colors. Some graduates wore the Israeli flag either on their clothing or their regalia. Others wore yellow ribbons calling for the return of the Israeli hostages in Gaza. 

Barnard graduates protesting during the ceremony.

Passing by Rosenbury, who stood silently, some graduates held up decorated caps or spun around to show the audience gowns reading “disclose,” “divest,” “shame,” and other messages referencing Palestinian support. Rosenbury reached out to the hands of some graduates walking by, or touched their lower arms in expectation that they would be shaking her hand as they walked past her. 

“Divest” and “Parents for Palestine” Banners Hung From Radio City Music Hall’s Upper Balcony.

As Rosenbury concluded the ceremony, audience members hung “Divest” and “Parents for Palestine” from the upper balcony.