A Final Graduation Requirement: Making Sense of Protest

Standing on the stage at Radio City Music Hall, Mariame Sissoko began to speak in a voice trembling, ever so slightly. Growing up in Philadelphia, Sissoko was outspoken, a high achiever, captain of the high school debate team. In other words, just the sort of person who would go to Barnard College, run for student government and wind up giving a graduation speech before an audience of 4,700 university officials, classmates and parents.

Sissoko, 22, who uses nonbinary pronouns, had been warned by administrators not to deviate from the speech they had turned in weeks earlier. But that speech was written before a pro-Palestinian encampment sprang up on the main lawn of Columbia (Barnard’s sibling school), before students occupied an academic building, Hamilton Hall, and the police made more than 100 arrests, before the campus became a locus of anger over the more than 35,000 people killed in Gaza during the war and of fear over rising antisemitism. Now, on graduation day, Sissoko put those warnings from administrators aside.

“To stand on this stage today is a privilege,” Sissoko said. “It is a privilege that over 15,000 children in Gaza will never receive.”

Sissoko’s classmates broke into applause. On Sissoko’s lapel was a poppy, meant to honor a 6-year-old Palestinian girl killed during the war and a 10-month-old Israeli baby taken hostage by Hamas. “I know that there are countless poppies with the names of children in Gaza who have been killed,” Sissoko continued. “They will walk across this stage with us.”

As Sissoko paused, classmates seated in the audience began to sing an anthem that was popularized during the civil rights movement and that pro-Palestinian protesters at Columbia had now taken up: “We shall not, we shall not be moved.”

From the rows of family seating came cries of “Boo!,” a chorus that grew louder as the students kept singing. An automated voice came over the loudspeaker: “Today’s speaker shared personal views, which may not reflect the views and values of Barnard College.”

New chants rose from the audience: “Bring them home!,” referring to the roughly 125 hostages remaining in Gaza, taken on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants crossed the border into Israel and killed about 1,200 people. Others in the crowd called back, “Free Palestine!” One disgruntled parent shouted: “I have a reservation!”

Graduation speakers usually offer encomiums about how college changes people with its intellectual striving, its community of peers, its moral dilemmas straddling the real world and the textbook page. But this year, students faced a test that for some really was foundational — one that asked them to define what they stood for and what they were willing to lose, from clean disciplinary records to social standing.

In the weeks leading up to graduation, I spoke with more than a dozen Columbia and Barnard students about how the campus protests had shaped them. An aspiring comedian, Jackson Schwartz, did a stand-up set about being arrested and suspended for pro-Palestinian protest; he told me that he was now thinking about law school, moved by the resolve of the lawyers who had counseled him. A psychology major, Daniella Coen, an Israeli citizen, said she had asked her family not to fly to New York for graduation because she felt ostracized at school for being a Zionist. A student filmmaker, Chambit Miller, described feeling torn between a sense of thrill in supporting her protesting classmates and disillusionment about their capacity to create change.

I focused especially on students at the periphery of the protests — not those whose conviction led them to sleep at the encampment, but those who took it in from more of a distance, a bit uncertain and searching. Some of them said that what they had witnessed in the last months of college influenced how they viewed the world and their career choices.

Sissoko has always created change in a largely orderly fashion — running for student government, getting good grades — but watching the protests unfold called into question some of that commitment to rule following. Reading the words that deviated from the preapproved graduation script, Sissoko tried not to cry. Then they took in the applause, which felt as if it roared on for hours, though in reality only moments passed before the ceremony continued.

The effects of being part of student protests can linger, for those involved, long after school ends.

In June 1964, more than 1,000 young people traveled to Mississippi to register Black voters as part of what civil rights groups called Freedom Summer. Two decades later, Doug McAdam, a Stanford sociologist, dug through applications for the project and contacted the volunteers, along with some 300 people who applied but hadn’t ultimately participated.

McAdam found that for the students who went to Mississippi, the experience was transformational. They were more likely than the group who didn’t participate to still be politically active in their 40s, attending demonstrations and local meetings for environmental, feminist and racial justice organizations; their incomes also tended to be lower, because they had taken community-oriented jobs.

Later, McAdam studied his own institution. He surveyed more than 500 students in the Stanford class of 2017, starting before their first year and continuing over six years. Roughly 200 of the students reported being involved in campus activism. McAdam concluded that activism during a person’s senior year was a statistically significant predictor of whether that person stayed involved in social movements after college.

Why people became active in the first place, McAdam found, was a combination of their ideological predispositions and their peer relationships on campus. What his study did not delve into was the subtle effect of campus movements on students who did not jump in as leaders.

At Columbia, the pro-Palestinian protests have already left their imprint on Jeremy Faust, even though he wasn’t directly involved.

Faust, 23, grew up on Long Island, where he went to a Reform temple and Jewish summer camp. He felt unsettled by the entirely sunny view of Israel that both taught him. “The vibe was hummus, falafel and ‘Yay, Israel,’” Faust said. “It was presented as nonpolitical to be really into Israel.”

When he arrived at Columbia four years ago, he gravitated to the campus chapter of J Street, a center-left advocacy group that opposes the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and supports the coexistence of Israelis and Palestinians in two states.

Even before this year, Faust, a political science major with a dual degree in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was planning student events that challenged Israeli treatment of Palestinians, including a program with a group called Breaking the Silence, made up of former Israeli soldiers denouncing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.

But Faust said he “felt caught in the middle,” especially after the Hamas attacks on Israel and Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. The left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace rejected J Street for being Zionist, while some pro-Israel students said J Street’s hosting of programs critical of Israel was shameful.

Faust was most comfortable in the Jewish communal home where he lived with some 30 other students who pooled their money for groceries and cooked dinner in a kosher kitchen. There was an informal rule that nobody would talk about the Israeli-Hamas war unless they could confirm that everyone in the room wanted to have the conversation.

Faust’s sense of political isolation heightened over the past two months, as classmates erected tents at the pro-Palestinian encampment and called for Columbia to divest from Israel. Some of the protest slogans unnerved him. The chants of “Intifada revolution” brought to mind the hundreds of civilians killed during the second intifada.

Still, when one of his friends invited him to attend a Sabbath service in the encampment, which was led by a group called Jews for Ceasefire, Faust decided to go. As he sat on the campus lawn, surrounded by students in kaffiyehs, singing familiar Friday night Hebrew prayers, he felt immense gratitude to the organizers.

Videos of the Sabbath services captured jubilant students wearing yarmulkes and dancing. But Faust’s joy was quickly tempered. The next day, he saw that an Israeli assistant professor at Columbia’s business school had reposted videos of the services on social media, referring to those who participated as akin to the Jews who supported the Nazi regime.

Faust always knew he wanted his life after college to be filled with Jewish ritual. He even imagined that he might start a side gig leading tours of New York focused on Jewish history. But his struggle to find a politically inclusive Jewish community made him think more deeply about becoming a rabbi.

“The appeal of being a rabbi is you’re part psychologist, researcher, community leader and activist at the same time,” he said.

On Mother’s Day, as senior year sped to a close, Faust went home to Long Island. He submitted his last paper of the year at 5 p.m., went downstairs where his family was hanging out and immediately opened his laptop. He navigated to the portal for rabbinical school applications, while his family members told him to close the computer. It was time to rest.

Julien Roa studied classics at Columbia, and he delighted in the arcane questions that anchored his seminars on ancient literature, poetry and philosophy. Campus social issues he treated with more distance, defining himself as the type of person who could argue any side of an issue.

But some of that intellectual distance dissolved as the intensity of pro-Palestinian protests deepened. Roa, 22, was with friends at a party in Midtown Manhattan on April 30, past midnight, when he got a text from a friend saying protesters were trying to enter Hamilton Hall, a campus building that has been a prominent site for activist occupation over the years. Roa called an Uber and headed uptown to witness a moment he knew would be historically important. He stood by with dozens of classmates until 4 a.m., watching as protesters overtook the building.

When the police removed the occupiers, he struggled to reconcile the university’s response with how proudly it had taught students about the school’s legacy of protest. “Nineteen sixty-eight is plastered all over Columbia’s websites,” Roa said, referring to the anti-Vietnam War protesters who took over Hamilton Hall 56 years ago. “They’ve subsumed it as part of their brand.”

In the weeks since, what has consumed Roa in conversations with friends and professors is the question — still esoteric, but also now deeply personal — of how colleges can live up to their promise of being spaces where students tangle with thorny ideas. After four years of abstract academic deliberating, he is alarmed to see schools quashing dissent, and wants campuses to stay open to free expression.

Roa hopes to find a way to research university decision-making, whether in law school or in his spare time. “Pretty much with every person I’ve spoken to in recent weeks, this is intellectually what’s on my mind.”

In any normal year, graduation week is that liminal space of bliss between final exams and real-world tests. Not this year.

Columbia canceled its main commencement ceremony and moved its Class Day, a long-running tradition celebrating the graduates, off the main campus and uptown to Baker Athletics Complex, which the school said was meant to ensure a smooth event. The university’s president did not attend.

Some graduates crossed the stage wrapped in kaffiyehs and carrying signs that read, “Divest.” Roa held up a graduation cap with a picture of the university president, his way of gesturing that a school leader should show up and face students, especially when confronting acrimony.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary’s graduation, where Faust’s parents and grandmother waited eagerly for his name to be called, students and their families stood to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They remained standing to sing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Administrators had worried that some students would protest, though none did.

While Faust listened to the speakers reciting prayers for Israel, he felt that now familiar sense of discomfort, though he tried to focus on his family, all abuzz with excitement.

At Radio City Music Hall, Sissoko’s speech was followed by remarks from Barnard’s commencement speaker, Ruth Simmons, a former president of Brown University. Simmons was visibly moved by what she had witnessed in the room. She pledged to match the senior class gift, which supports Barnard initiatives, of $8,100.

“I find myself unduly emotional,” she said through tears. “I will never forget having been here today.”

As soon as Sissoko left the stage, their parents, two sisters, brother and uncle and three childhood friends rushed forward with hugs. Sissoko’s mom had a bouquet of red roses. Sissoko’s middle sister, Kemi, through tears, texted the video of her sibling’s speech to friends. “They were like, ‘Yup, this is what we expected Mariame to do,’” Kemi said laughing.

During their four years at Barnard, Sissoko took classes on politics, speculative literature and women’s health, but they weren’t entirely certain where it all would lead. They had looked into doctoral programs in anthropology, but with ambivalence.

By the time Sissoko was posing for pictures in Radio City Music Hall, they felt confident in their ambition: become a college professor. It was a goal influenced by members of Columbia’s faculty, who had linked arms and surrounded the encampment organizers in a show of protection when the police first arrived.

“Seeing my professors show up for students, it’s like: Yes, I can see myself doing this in 20 or 30 years, for whatever the next world crisis is,” Sissoko said.

And after all the conflicting voices Sissoko absorbed and answered to, even a role as a university administrator seems possible: “I don’t think it’s completely off the table,” they said. “I have a very deep understanding of how universities work now.”

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Kim browne

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