US campus protests: 'Student arrests will be my final college memory'

Protesters gather on the University of California, Los Angeles
Protesters gather on the University of California, Los Angeles [Getty Images]

In January 2020, they were seniors in high school. Graduation was just around the corner. But so was a deadly pandemic.

By mid-March, Covid had upended daily life and many students were forced to spend their final months of school at home. Proms were cancelled.

Four years later, those same students are now in college about to graduate. And once again, they face a similar souring of what would normally be a festive occasion.

Pro-Palestinian protests have erupted at over 130 college campuses across the US, as organisers demand their universities cut ties from companies linked to Israel.

They've set up vast encampments in the middle of university grounds and defied multiple warnings to disperse, sparking police raids and over 2,000 arrests.

Three seniors explain how they're dealing with this tumultuous ending of their academic careers - for the second time.

'Students dragged away by police are my final memories'

Madison Morris, 22, University of Texas

The day the state troopers came in, that was also the day I had my last final exam. When I got to campus, they were already there and were closing in on students.

The tension was super high. I had never been that close to so many police before. It was scary.

I didn't really study for my exam later that day - I couldn't focus. All I kept thinking about was what I had just seen. I doubt I did as well on the exam as I wanted.

My last day of class was the day I saw protesters - my fellow students - who were peacefully gathered on the main lawn, getting dragged away by police and arrested.

That's something that's going to be ingrained in my memory forever. Those are going to be the memories of my final moments in college.

It's hard to even feel happy right now while seeing all the negative stuff that's happening. I feel like I can't even really celebrate my accomplishments, because I'm just so overwhelmed.

Graduation is next week. I had been looking forward to it for the last four years, because I didn't get to have a real one in high school. Because of Covid, we had to wear masks and there was social distancing. It wasn't the same.

I was really hoping for a traditional graduation this year. I have been trying to make the most of my senior year and really just take it all in, but it's hard when stuff like this is going on. Like Covid, honestly, it all feels super dystopian.

'I might not be allowed to walk up at graduation'

Craig Birckhead-Morton, 21, Yale University

I was one of the 48 students arrested on 22 April. I woke up in the encampment at 6:30 to warnings from our safety marshals that we're being surrounded by the police. They told us to get up and prepare for arrest. I went to class the same day. It's been a very difficult time - a whole new level of stress.

I have two final papers due. I have an Arabic project due. And I'm still behind on it because of everything that's going on.

Senior year is extremely important, considering my family in all of this. They want to see me graduate. It's been a major concern of mine.

We still haven't heard how the university plans to respond. And in many ways that's scarier than our actual legal charges.

We might not be allowed to walk at graduation. We might not receive our diplomas or final transcripts. For me, the transcript is critical. I need it to matriculate into the master's programme I was accepted into at Columbia.

Personally, I feel that all this knowledge I'm acquiring at Yale needs to go to a just cause. That's why I felt it necessary to hold the line on this. The situation in Palestine is unacceptable.

I remember the first week of March during my senior year of high school. We were sent home and things were made remote.

We didn't know that would be the end, but it was. No prom, no graduation. The pandemic was a major disruptor, but so were the Black Lives Matter protests. That was also a crucial part of the end of my high school experience and something that led me into organising and where I am today.

'The protesters are ruining student life'

Melissa Manesh, 21, University of Southern California

This is supposed to be a happy time, the last few days on campus we'll ever have as students. And now it's being taken over by protesters. There's so much chaos happening. It's frustrating.

The protesters are ruining student life. Libraries aren't being open at a time when most people are trying to study for final exams.

There are helicopters flying around. Only two entrances are open to campus, which forces some of us to walk extra-long distances. Protesters are also blocking a huge area on campus and making it feel unsafe to walk through.

I know for the Jewish students, a lot of us are scared. They'll shout at you. They'll call you a genocide supporter. We don't want to see these protesters and their signs that are extremely offensive. It heightens the stress of having to study. It's hard not to think about this when it's all happening right in front of you. It's extremely distracting.

If you had told me that graduation was going to be cancelled, I wouldn't have believed you. When we found out, we were all really distraught and upset. This was supposed to be one of the biggest moments of our academic careers - one that we've all been waiting for - and now it's gone.

I was also the class of 2020 for high school, and we didn't have a graduation then because of Covid. This feels really similar, and it's so sad and so upsetting. But now it feels much deeper and much more personal. It's not every graduating senior in the world this time that's losing their ceremony. It's just every graduating senior at USC.