Silenced USC valedictorian walked the stage and the crowd reaction was anything but silent

LOS ANGELES-CA-MAY 10, 2024: USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum receives her diploma on stage beside Dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering Yannis C. Yortsos at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on May 10, 2024. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum receives her diploma beside Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the Viterbi School of Engineering, at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday. (Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

The crowd inside USC’s Galen Center erupted in a prolonged symphony of applause Friday as Asna Tabassum — the Muslim valedictorian whose speech was canceled by university leaders amid controversy over her pro-Palestinian views — walked across the stage to accept her diploma during the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony.

Tabassum’s entire biomedical engineering class, along with a few spectators, stood to applaud her as she left the stage and walked down the aisle to her seat. “Asna, I love you!” a spectator yelled from the stands. Her crimson graduation sash was emblazoned with her academic achievements — including her minor in resistance to genocide and extracurricular involvements — and the phrase "praise be to God" written in Arabic.

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation
USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

As the crowd roared she turned and laughed, raising a hand to her heart — a moment of joy at the university, which has been racked by tension and disappointment over upended graduation plans. Similar satellite ceremonies throughout campus at individual schools "ran smoothly without a hitch," a university spokesperson said.

"Joyful, celebratory, and no disruptions," said Joel Curran, senior vice president of communications.

USC President Carol Folt had canceled Tabassum's commencement speech last month after the university received threats related to a pro-Palestinian link on her Instagram account. Pro-Israel groups said the linked website was antisemitic because it included the words, “One Palestinian state would mean Palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of Israel" so that "both Arabs and Jews can live together.” Tabassum has said she's not antisemitic.

USC graduates smile together in black gowns, mortarboards and sashes with the university's cardinal and gold colors
USC students attend graduation from the Viterbi School of Engineering at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Read more: 13 days that rocked USC: How a derailed commencement brought 'complete disaster'

Amid ongoing turmoil over campus protests, Folt canceled the main-stage commencement ceremony, which would have taken place Friday, an event that typically draws about 65,000 people to the Los Angeles campus.

After students set up a pro-Palestinian encampment and demanded that USC end its financial ties with Israel, Folt and her team called in the Los Angeles Police Department and 93 people were arrested. On Sunday morning, police cleared a second encampment, but no arrests were made.

"The world is in angst and it is in pain. International events take place thousands of miles away in different parts of the world, but we feel them here on our campuses. Through it you have demonstrated dignity, moral compass and true grace," Yannis C. Yortsos, dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, told the crowd of graduates on Friday.

"You demonstrated your trustworthiness, traits that augur well for the future, as you will be asked to bring solutions to grand challenges, many of which will have a social-centric focus," he said.

A day earlier, during a student recognition awards ceremony, Tabassum was also given a long and loud standing ovation from her peers. She laughed and pretended to check her watch as the applause continued.

Friday's individual school ceremonies, while celebratory, carried the weight of the past several challenging weeks on the USC campus.

The sprawling campus resembled a fortress on Friday morning with strict ticketing, several closed entrances and fences enclosing and blocking access to green space, seemingly to prevent encampments. In the quad near Doheny Library, where the main-stage commencement traditionally happens, the lawns were instead sliced by fences that demarcated lounges and tables for specific graduation events.

A crowd of USC graduates, one giving the "Fight On" hand gesture, in black gowns and mortarboard hats
USC students attend graduation from Viterbi School of Engineering at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Guests were required to pass through security checkpoints and metal detectors and carry their belongings in clear bags. Since the Sunday encampment sweep, officers from several law enforcement agencies have been stationed at the center of campus.

At one campus entrance, more than 100 people — including graduates in black robes and crimson sashes — waited in lines to get through the checkpoints. USC conferred 19,000 degrees during the series of ceremonies on Friday.

Read more: Citing safety concerns, USC cancels pro-Palestinian valedictorian's graduation speech

The standing ovation for Tabassum — and numerous ceremonies that unfolded on campus to cheers and applause as graduate's names were called — cut through the air of disappointment that many have felt in the lead-up to altered ceremonies.

Tabassum released a form of her speech through student media at 8 a.m. on Friday, roughly when she would have spoken during the scrapped main-stage ceremony.

"President Folt, Provost [Andrew] Guzman, faculty, staff, families and fellow Class of 2024: It is my honor to stand before you today as your valedictorian.

"I am filled with gratitude to have the privilege of,” it says before being cut off by several blocks of blacked-out text, symbolizing how she was silenced.

USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum is framed by other students in soft focus
USC valedictorian Asna Tabassum attends the Viterbi School of Engineering graduation ceremony at the Galen Center in Los Angeles on Friday. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Congratulations, Class of 2024,” it ends, before more blacked-out words. “Thank you."

At USC Hillel on Friday morning about 50 graduates and 200 other guests gathered for a Jewish-centric graduation ceremony.

“What a four years you had,” actress and former "Jeopardy!" host Mayim Bialik told the crowd, in a surprise speech that was broadcast on video screens.

“You are the ones we worried about,” she said, a reference to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic during their senior year of high school and first year in college.

Speakers emphasized the painful year that Jews around the world and at USC have experienced.

"This moment is not an end but a beginning,” Leah Hochman, Director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies and an associate professor of Jewish thought, told those gathered. She urged them to live lives of integrity.

“Teach others. Talk with them. Listen to them. Come back in a couple years and show us what you got,” she said.

Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC, said that “by so many metrics, this was the hardest year for Jewish life on campus maybe ever.”

“And yet, on the other hand, in my 16 years here, I’ve never seen a more vibrant, engaged, passionate Jewish community on campus," Soni said.

Justin Korn, who graduated with an undergraduate degree in interactive media and game design from the School of Cinematic Arts, said it "was important to come here and replace the feeling when they canceled the big one," meaning the mainstage commencement.

"It was a little disappointing, but we're here together now," Korn said.

Spectators cheer and snap photos as fireworks go off at the "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at the Coliseum
Fireworks go off at the "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at the Coliseum on Thursday. The traditional main stage ceremony at Alumni Park was canceled due to campus unrest. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this week, Folt and Guzman were censured by the Academic Senate, a body of representatives for USC faculty. The members cited “widespread dissatisfaction and concern among the faculty about administrative actions and decisions surrounding protests and commencement.”

Folt has defended her actions and said in an interview with The Times that campus safety is her “North Star.”

“For me, I have a very clear North Star: that I am the person at the university, no matter how complicated the issue and how much I empathize with everybody involved — which has been true for me — I still in the end have to sit back and say, ‘What can I do to keep my campus and my people as safe as possible?’”

A campus spokesperson said Folt was "moving all around campus [Friday] meeting with graduates and families." She also helped present an honorary degree to tennis star Billie Jean King.

Read more: Fireworks, drones, Travis Scott hats: USC hosts alternative graduation event. Feelings are mixed

Much of the uncertainty of the preceding weeks remained just below the surface during the Thursday night alternative graduation party dubbed "Trojan Family Graduate Celebration" at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The event was billed as an “electric atmosphere” — capped at six tickets per graduate — featuring a drone show, fireworks and a “special gift” for the Class of 2024: a hat from rap star Travis Scott’s collegiate clothing brand. The university had pitched the event as a “Southern California-style” celebration to compensate for the loss of the main-stage ceremony with a valedictorian, keynote speeches and the presentation of honorary degrees.

A USC student in graduation regalia is partially silhouetted near a red curtain
A USC student waits to have their name called during graduation Friday from the Viterbi School of Engineering at the Galen Center in Los Angeles. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Annette Ricchiazzi was on campus Friday for her daughter's graduation from the School of Dramatic Arts. She was able to bring immediate family to the event with the four tickets her daughter received. With the main-stage ceremony canceled, grandparents and other family didn't attend, she said.

"It's definitely a different kind of commencement, but we are making the best of it," Ricchiazzi, a USC alumna, said. She attended the gathering at the Coliseum Thursday night and said it was "strange."

"It was fine for what it was, as a spirit or pep-rally kind thing. It was nice. Students and staff clearly put time and effort into it," she said. "But it was like putting a Band-Aid on a stab wound."

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.