Divya Jakatdar imagined that she would spend her senior year of high school celebrating college acceptances with her friends, attending prom and walking across the stage at graduation to the cheers of her family members.

Instead, her senior spring arrived at the same time as the coronavirus pandemic. She said goodbye to high school classmates over Zoom; her graduation was a drive-through.

Ms. Jakatdar, 21, thought her senior year at the University of Southern California might be a kind of do-over. But it has erupted into unrest in recent weeks after the school initially canceled commencement speeches by its valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, the director Jon M. Chu and the tennis star Billie Jean King, citing safety concerns related to the Israel-Hamas war, and then went a step further on Thursday, canceling the university’s “main stage” commencement ceremony entirely.

“It’s a very big hit to morale for the exact class that felt like they lost their high school graduation,” Ms. Jakatdar, the student body president of U.S.C., said a few minutes after getting news that the commencement was off. “We’ve missed out on enough.”

But as was the case during Covid, Ms. Jakatdar does not feel quite right about moping: “It seems sort of ridiculous for us to complain about graduation when people’s lives are on the line.”

It is a story that is playing out across the country. Millions of high schoolers had their senior years upended by Covid in 2020, being left to celebrate their momentous occasion in isolation. Four years later, many of those same students have had the traditions of their senior years foiled once again, this time in response to the Israel-Hamas war, and the attempts by universities to shut down or contain widespread protests.

At Columbia University in New York City, the university president called the police to clear an encampment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, resulting in the arrests of more than 100 protesters. Classes were moved online for the remainder of the spring semester. At U.S.C., students protested for days, calling the administration to reinstate Ms. Tabassum as speaker. The wave of student activism extends to pro-Palestinian protests at schools including Yale University, the University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin and M.I.T.

Members of the class of 2024 say they are once again juggling an altered personal milestone with feelings of anxiety and frustration about the state of the world that lies beyond college. Many of them say they are keeping their own inconveniences in perspective, but the fact remains: The class of pandemic graduates seems destined never to know a stereotypical senior year.

“A lot of our milestones have had some big, looming global atrocity over us,” said Sophia Pargas, a senior at Emerson College in Boston. “It’s almost like we’ve been conditioned for it at this point.”

Ms. Pargas, 21, has spent recent months covering protests on campus and arrests of her fellow students for her school paper, The Berkeley Beacon. Still, she said she is trying to find moments of celebration. She plans to attend a makeup prom that her class is hosting for seniors who never got to go the first time.

Maideh Orangi, 22, a senior at U.S.C. and an executive director of its Middle Eastern North African Student Assembly, has spent much of her year organizing demonstrations and vigils for the Palestinians killed in Gaza since Israel’s invasion.

“I expected it to be more typical senior year things,” Ms. Orangi said. “But I’m not upset that this has been a defining aspect of my senior year.”

Ms. Orangi said she and other students were shocked when the university-wide commencement ceremony was canceled. “The one glimmer of hope, the one bright side that I was looking forward to in all of this was that one commencement, and now it’s just all gone,” she said. “It feels like the whole end to my senior year is surrounded by a really sour feeling.”

For Rachel Burns, a senior at Columbia, a proper graduation has been a long time coming. When she graduated from high school four years ago, in Portland, Maine, she did so from her car in the school parking lot. This time around, her only plan is to make sure that she and her fellow protesters’ demands are met by the university.

“I think that what’s most important right now is that we stick together and put up a united front against the administration and if that means sacrificing my graduation, then I’m willing to do that,” Ms. Burns, 24, said while wearing a kaffiyeh around her head and dark sunglasses in front of Butler Library.

Not every student feels that way. Ruby Cayenne, 23, a senior at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, in Arcata, Calif., said she was heartbroken by the prospect that protests might disrupt her graduation. “I have put my blood, sweat and tears into getting this degree. The family on my father’s side are Cuban immigrants and they fought hard to get into this country and to provide a life where their future generations can get an education.”

Ms. Cayenne, who is Jewish and identifies as a Zionist, said that she had felt personally harassed by the individuals from the Humboldt for Palestine group. “They sought me out. They called me a genocide supporter, a baby killer, a fascist,” Ms. Cayenne said. “They don’t know me, they don’t know what I support. So to know that those people are potentially going to take away my opportunity to experience my hard-earned graduation is a horrible feeling.”

The emotions range widely among other affected students.

Neeve Levy, 24, who started at Columbia in 2020 after a couple gap years, was crushed when she realized classes would be remote because of the pandemic. Now a senior, she said she understands the protesters and struggles with not protesting herself but she sees how polarizing the topic has been.

“I have a lot of respect for the protesters and what the students are doing,” Ms. Levy said from Butler library. “I struggle with seeing how it’s affecting many of my Jewish friends.”

Ms. Levy’s grandparents live in Israel and have been excited to see their granddaughter graduate, but now that might not happen.

“At the beginning there were questions of whether or not they could make it because of airlines canceling after Iran bombed Israel,” she said. “It’s crazy to me, the fact that I’m actually graduating from here — or that I even got here — and the thing that’s stopping it is not me.”

Sofia Ongele, 24, was also not part of the 2020 pandemic class of high schoolers, but her own senior year wasn’t exactly what she expected. Her small charter school in Santa Clarita, Calif., closed around the time of her graduation, so the ceremony was small and disappointing, and a gap year was spent at home.

Now a senior at Columbia, her spring is being dominated by world events of a different kind. Speaking from inside the protest encampment on the south field of Columbia University’s Upper Manhattan campus, she said she couldn’t think of a better way to spend the last few weeks of her college years than taking part in a protest with her fellow classmates.

“Unfortunately, being Gen Z means dealing with repeated states of the world that are in absolute hostility and turmoil,” Ms. Ongele said, while standing in front of a community guidelines board in front of the encampment, wearing a black face mask. “We are the generation of school shootings, the generation that is tasked to deal with climate change. We’ve just been dealt the short end of the stick time and time again. I’m not going to say that it feels expected because I feel like at some point of our lives we should know normalcy but it’s been a lot.”

Having an actual commencement ceremony means a lot to Lindsay, 21, who requested to be identified by only her given name to protect her employment opportunities after college. Her graduation from a private high school in Manhattan, four years ago, was “anticlimactic,” she said, and she is now worried she may not get to celebrate her graduation from Columbia either.

“It’s a lot of emotions,” she said while standing in front of bleachers installed near Low Library in preparation for commencement. “Graduation from college is a pretty big deal.”

She said she was hopeful that commencement would go on at least in some capacity, even if she struggled to envision it.

“I am not sure how that would go on,” she said, glancing over at the encampment. “I would just hope that anybody who wants to protest gives space to people who are graduating and let it be about us seniors and not about anything else.”

With graduation less than a month away at Cal State Humboldt, a campus closure and student protests have triggered a wave of memories in some students.

Jacqueline V. Espinoza, 21, a senior at Humboldt, said it was around this time four years ago that she last experienced this kind of intersection of personal and global history.

“It was a surreal moment when I think of the class of 2020,” said Ms. Espinoza, an English major. “I remember like a bunch of the B.L.M. protests going on during that time, and now that I’m graduating in 2024, I can definitely see the parallels.”

Dezmond Remington, 20, also of Cal State Humboldt, said that while he was excited to finally graduate, he was hoping to finish in a more low-key fashion.

“I was really looking forward to an easy couple of last weeks where my whole family could be here and I could graduate and get on with my life,” he said.

At U.S.C., Mustafa Ali Khan, 21, had been looking forward to his graduation, especially after transferring there following two years of community college. “One puts a lot of weight in these moments. It’s kind of like a culmination of a lot of work you put in.”

He said the decision to cancel U.S.C.’s main commencement would be especially painful for family members, many of whom had already made plans to come to campus.

“My mom’s saying she can’t wait for my grad school graduation now,” he said.



By Callie Holtermann, Sandra E. Garcia and Frank Rojas

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