Columbia College 2024 graduation marked in low-key ceremony with a handful of pro-Palestinian displays

NEW YORK — The Columbia College Class of 2024 — including many students whose high school graduations were canceled during the pandemic — graduated Tuesday morning at a smaller, toned-down ceremony that included a handful of low-key pro-Palestinian displays.

Columbia scrapped its university-wide commencement amid ongoing protests over the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas that peaked with the takeover of an academic building, Hamilton Hall, when administrators summoned the NYPD for the second time this spring.

“It’s been super tumultuous, a very fitting end to our experience I think, considering the way we started,” said Samantha Velasquez, a neuroscience and political science major from the Bronx, who began college online. “I’m just glad I got to walk I guess because I didn’t get to in high school.”

School-level ceremonies, where students get to cross the graduation stage, continued miles away from Columbia’s main campus in Morningside Heights at its athletic complex in Inwood.

But a small share of students persisted with their demonstrations against Israel’s war in Gaza, waving Palestinian flags and wearing keffiyehs. On stage, the Class of 2024 valedictorian donned the Middle Eastern scarf and placed a “Free Palestine” sticker over her clear award plaque, a livestream inside graduation showed. Another student paraded outside the complex with a sign saying “Columbia funds genocide” after the ceremony.

“This has informed everyone’s end of their time on campus,” said a graduate, who decorated his graduation with ‘Hind’s Hall,’ the name protesters gave to the occupied building after a young victim of war, and an image of a tent. “It’s important to let admin know that this is what we’re thinking about, even though it’s graduation.”

A graduation program reviewed by the Daily News showed University President Minouche Shafik, who is facing a vote of no confidence by arts and sciences faculty, was scheduled to — but did not — deliver remarks before the conferral of degrees.

A Columbia spokesperson disputed the president was scheduled to speak in the first place, saying programs were printed before Shafik was confirmed.

An estimated 15,000 Columbia students were expected to receive diplomas this semester. Some seniors who face disciplinary action related to the pro-Palestinian protests were not eligible to complete their degrees.

“To me, graduating high school is something you are supposed to do, if that makes sense, so I wasn’t that torn up about it,” said Noah Layton, who skipped protests this semester to avoid risking a diploma. “This was much harder to do. So it stings a little bit more.”

Some of the smaller ceremonies of the last several days have featured some disruptions and demonstrations.

A handful of graduates at the School of General Studies ceremony Monday refused to shake the dean’s hand as they received their diplomas, student newspaper Columbia Spectator reported. At the end of last week, a Columbia social work graduate in zip ties and a keffiyeh ripped their diploma folder on stage.

Juan Zuniga did not fault student protesters for the loss of university-wide commencement, originally scheduled for Wednesday.

“I support the students’ right to free speech,” Zuniga said. “Their cause is more than our graduation. It is what it is. I’m just disappointed.”

Instead that day, students will host a smaller, wristband-only celebration on main campus with music, performances, student speeches, and a block party with food trucks, an announcement read. The event is open to graduates only, and not to families and friends. Certain items are prohibited, including signs and flags.

“Obviously, the administration could have handled it better,” said another Columbia senior, while adding: “I understand why. It’s a safety concern, whether you support the protests or not. I wouldn’t want my relatives from the U.K. to fly over here for anything bad to happen.”

“It’s also New York. In any other Ivy League, it would be easier to control. Even though it sucks, because it’s so publicized, this type of thing does attract all sorts of people.”

Columbia has requested the NYPD remain on campus through May 17, after all graduation ceremonies have ended.

Pro-Palestinian protests that had been a feature of campus life since the fall came to define the spring semester after a group of students set up a tent city on the campus lawns, as university officials were set to appear at a congressional antisemitism hearing. The encampment, now dismantled, sparked a national movement of college protests against Israel’s war in Gaza.


With Roni Jacobson