Students Celebrate at ‘The People’s Graduation’

Protesters demonstrate against the war in Gaza outside the entrance to the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024. Credit - Mary Altaffer—AP

College students risking school discipline for their pro-Palestinian activism were celebrated by peers and supporters for their moral clarity at a church across the street from Columbia University on Thursday.

Faculty and staff from Columbia and Barnard College helped organize ‘The People’s Graduation’ at The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Hundreds of students—mostly from the two schools, attended. So did some others from New York University, The City University of New York and Parsons School of Design.

Hours before ‘The People’s Graduation’ began, the Arts and Sciences faculty at Columbia University passed a vote of no confidence in university president, Minouche Shafik. The resolution criticized her for an “unprecedented assault on students’ rights” after she invited police on campus, twice, to arrest protesting students. More than 60% of the 709 professors voted to express no confidence in Shafik; 29% voted against it and 6% abstained.

Columbia University had canceled its larger, official commencement gathering earlier this month, citing security concerns, and was not involved in organizing ‘The People’s Graduation’. They still held smaller celebrations, grouped by type of school. Nearly 17,000 graduates celebrated in these ceremonies over the past week, according to the university. Barnard College held a commencement ceremony Wednesday; some students, including Student Government Association President Mariame Sissoko, who gave a speech, spoke out in favor of advocating for Gaza at the event.

Shayoni Mitra, a senior lecturer at Barnard College’s theater department who helped organize Thursday’s ceremony, says staff wanted the event to provide students a space of refuge. She says that there are currently about 200 active disciplinary hearings for students at Columbia and Barnard based on self-reported crowd-sourced numbers. Mitra says the university has not provided staff with more details on the number of students facing potential suspension or expulsion. Columbia University did not respond to a specific request asking for clarity on the number of students in disciplinary proceedings.

“I feel this deep conviction that this ceremony reflects the moral center…of our community,” says Manu Karuka, an associate professor of American Studies at Barnard College, who also helped organize the event. “This cohort is really special.” He points out how students provided housing and food for each other, once the university revoked access to dorms and dining halls for some students following a campus lockdown.

Read More: What America’s Student Photojournalists Saw at the Campus Protests

Dunnia, a 23-year-old Palestinian graduate student, is among a small group of Palestinian Americans who attended ‘The People’s Graduation.’ “This ceremony…gives me hope,” she says. (Dunnia asked to withhold her last name for fear of doxxing.) On Thursday, she wore a cream-colored top and bottom, along with a scarf—all with special Palestinian embroidery known as tatreez. She describes tatreez as a form of resistance and points out specific parts that refer to Palestinian villages and others to olives.

Dunnia says she was frequently at Columbia’s student encampment and continues to protest for divestment off-campus. “I’m willing to sacrifice, whether it’s my education, my job or whatever it is for the freedom of Palestine,” she says. Asked about her reaction to increased police presence on campus, Dunnia recalls her time in Palestine. “It reminded me of back home. Having a police force always present—it’s a tactic to threaten us, to be scared. I don’t find it terrifying anymore,” she says. Dunnia also went to a smaller official school ceremony earlier in the week. When she shook the dean’s hand, she told him, “Divest now, Free Palestine,” she says. Others chose to boycott those events altogether. An undergraduate student whose father was deployed in Vietnam as an army medic says he couldn’t bring himself to go. “I didn’t feel it was right,” he shares. (He asked for anonymity for fear of being doxxed.)

Ryna Workman was not allowed to walk at NYU’s official commencement after she participated in two encampments, as well as occupied the university library, they say. Workman also lost a job offer from a law firm after they said in a statement after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack that Israel bore “full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life. This regime of state-sanctioned violence created the conditions that made resistance necessary.” (Winston & Strawn previously said their comments “profoundly conflict” with the firm’s values.

Workman doesn’t know if they will still be able to get their degree and worries that $300,000 and three years of work may go “down the drain.” They are grateful for Thursday’s event, noting, “We are here because you can’t actually take away our joy—you can’t take the celebration away from us. Even if we can’t do it on your stage, we’ll do it on a different stage…We got here on our own terms; we’re going to graduate on our own terms.”

An NYU spokesperson has said that the university’s commencement was successfully held Wednesday and only a “few dozen students” of the 14,000 graduating students present walked out. “The number of graduating seniors not able to participate in Commencement because of disciplinary sanctions resulting from recent incidents was very small - fewer than a handful,” they said. “Even among that very small number of students, not being able to participate in the graduation ceremony does not mean they will not receive their degrees.”

The Very Reverend Patrick Malloy of The Cathedral of Saint John the Divine says that Thursday’s event was not a political rally but a space that any student or staff is welcome to attend. He adds that the church was happy to provide a space for some faculty members in response to their request to set up an alternative graduation ceremony, especially since there was no longer a bigger, official one. He notes that the presiding Bishop Rev. Michael Curry has joined other religious leaders in calling for the release of Israeli hostages by Hamas and calling for a ceasefire.

Before Thursday’s ceremony, right outside the church, a student sold art prints of ‘Hind’s Hall’ that she illustrated for $10; a sign noted that half the proceeds would go to Gaza. (A group of student protesters had occupied Hamilton Hall earlier this month, before renaming it Hind’s Hall—as a tribute to 6-year-old Hind Rajab, who was killed during Israel’s military offensive in Gaza.)

Thursday’s event was often celebratory and jubilant, as speakers praised students for their commitment to justice and for sparking a global movement of pro-Palestinian encampments. “This kind of solidarity immortalizes Palestine forever,” said Palestinian American Rahmah Badran, who was chosen as the official student speaker at the event, in a speech. It was a stark contrast to how Shafik has described protests. After students’ occupation of Hamilton Hall, she wrote in a May 1 statement, “This drastic escalation of many months of protest activity pushed the University to the brink, creating a disruptive environment for everyone and raising safety risks to an intolerable level.” But many student protesters said police conduct is what made them feel unsafe. The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment about allegations of violent conduct.

Speakers on Thursday also repeatedly referenced Israel’s bombing of universities and the 76th anniversary of the Nakba on Wednesday. (Palestinians refer to the creation of Israel and its subsequent displacement of about 750,000 people from their homes as the Nakba, or catastrophe.) Many argue that the Nakba is ongoing, with the continued displacement of Palestinians, as they flee from one designated “safe zone” to another.

At times, the event became more somber. Musician Vijay Ayer dedicated a piece on the piano to poet Palestinian Refaat Alareer, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike. While he played, a slideshow of photos from Columbia Journalism School’s graduate students featured images of the encampments and protests. Palestinian American poet Fady Joudah started crying while reciting a poem he wrote about Palestinians killed by Israel.

The ceremony also featured prayers led by a reverend, rabbi and Muslim community member. “You have sought justice for the people of Palestine: keeping the world’s attention on this terrifying war…you protested peacefully, seeking to end the violence by asking your university to divest from weapons of destruction and not defense,” said Rabbi Rebecca Alpert.

Noura Erakat, a popular Palestinian American lawyer and human rights activist, thanked students who helped out with jail support to assist arrested protesters. She spoke about how Palestinians in Gaza expressed gratitude to students for their protests, before switching on a video message from Palestinian Al Jazeera journalist Hind Khoudary in Gaza. “You gave us hope,” Khoudary said. “Keep protesting. We are still being bombed. We are still being killed. Hopefully, I’ll see you one day soon when all of this ends.” Journalist Mona Chalabi, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, criticized mainstream media over its Gaza coverage and paid tribute to the diligent reporting of student journalists—some of whom were in the audience.

The ceremony closed with a performance from a group of student protesters who started playing together after meeting at the encampment. “This is a song that many of you know intimately from many protests,” said one of the singers, before starting.

“Where you go, I will go my friend

 Where you go, I will go 

Cause your people are my people 

Your people are mine

Your people are my people 

Our struggles align”

It was the same song that student protesters sang when they first occupied Hamilton Hall and when police arrested them.

Write to Sanya Mansoor at