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First COVID, now protests for Gaza. UC San Diego’s class of 2024 ends their unusual journey

When describing the experiences of the class of 2024 — normal isn’t an option.

In 2020, they lost their high school graduations to COVID-19 and had to stay home for their freshman year while the world battled a pandemic. Now, as they graduate from college, life on campuses across the country is consumed with the war in Gaza.

UC San Diego, which is holding its graduations this weekend, is no different. In recent weeks, students have walked across campus with signs proclaiming divestment, debated the war on social media and, most recently, staged a solidarity encampment that led to multiple arrests.


In the wake of the activity, UCSD seniors found themselves in a school year that has divided students and administration.

The university administration has responded to the student actions in a variety of ways, most notably by holding up the graduations of some protestors involved in the student encampment and canceling the campus’ annual Sun God music festival in early May.

UCSD senior Destiny Okoronkwo has a brother who goes to USC. When she heard of that university’s decision to cancel its main stage graduation, she worried her graduation might be next.

“So as soon as I heard that, I called him. I was like, ‘How could they do that?’” Okoronkwo said. “Especially as someone who didn't have a high school graduation, because I was class of 2020, I was a bit fearful that (UCSD) would take away our graduation. I was like, damn, not again.”

UCSD graduating senior Jenny To says that the amount of unrest on campus and the administrative responses to protests has made her feel ambivalent about her graduation.


“This is just me, but I think the whole situation has made me a little bit apathetic towards graduating in the first place,” To said. “I think any source of maximal pride that a student could feel going through that type of ceremony, it's definitely been dampened by the events of the past month and the months before it.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters hold signs outside the Gaza solidarity encampment at UC San Diego, May 5, 2024.
Pro-Palestinian protesters hold signs outside the Gaza solidarity encampment at UC San Diego, May 5, 2024.

Others said they’re dismayed that students who participated in the encampment may not get to graduate with their peers.

“It's definitely a different risk that students of color feel that they're taking when we show up to these kinds of things,” UCSD senior Tomi Oginni said. “And just with upcoming graduation, I think a lot of people opted not to attend the protest because of that reason.”

In response to questions from KPBS, a UCSD spokesperson sent a statement that defended its actions against protesters.

“Dialogue, free speech and academic freedom are cornerstones of our university and UC San Diego fully supports the right to peacefully protest and express views on campus,” the statement read. “Since Oct. 2023, UC San Diego has supported at least 27 major campus free expression events, all of which were peaceful, legal protests. The encampment, however, was not one of these as it violated campus policy and the law and grew to pose unacceptable risk to the safety of the campus community.”

Oginni, a fourth-year student in the university’s public health program, said protests have certainly made their mark on everyday university life, from classes to clubs.

“I think once (protests) became more prevalent on campus, it did come up in classes as well with a couple of professors and then definitely people talking about it,” Oginni said. “I know I'm in a student organization, Nigerian Student Association, and we'd have to be considerate of when there were protests and whether it was a good time to be holding events and stuff like that.”

Oginni added that professors broached the topic of demonstrations on campus differently, with some encouraging students to demonstrate and others simply allowing discussions in class.

“I don't know how vocal the STEM professors would be, but as a public health student, obviously, this is the type of thing that we do care about. My public health professor for the one class that I am taking, we did spend an entire day just talking about it, talking about how to be actionable in this, aside from the protests, just because a lot of us communicated a fear of protesting, especially with graduation less than a month away,” Oginni said.

Students march through the UC San Diego campus to protest the war in Gaza and the treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters, May 8, 2024.
Students march through the UC San Diego campus to protest the war in Gaza and the treatment of pro-Palestinian protesters, May 8, 2024.

However, others, like To, said despite the negative repercussions of Sun God being canceled and students’ diplomas being withheld, the protests created a form of community among like-minded students.

“It's my fourth year and I've seen protests kind of come and go for a multitude of different reasons. But I think particularly this year, you see a huge undergrad movement where people are making the active choice to learn about what's happening on campus,” To said. “I think that's something that really, really makes it special … in a sense that it's bringing more students together, it's making people interested in making people talk about it.”

Okoronkwo agreed, adding that in the past year, UCSD’s campus environment has undergone a significant shift.

“Honestly, especially because I started UCSD during COVID, the environment on campus was very dead,” Okoronkwo said.” And to be honest, being a fourth-year, just honestly, looking back at everything, I feel like I could understand why people call us UC socially dead, because I feel like there really is no school spirit. There's no unity, no togetherness. But I think that changed, honestly, this last year, seeing everyone come together and stuff, which is great.”

Now, graduation is around the corner, and a number of upcoming graduates agreed that a last side effect of the turmoil is a case of senioritis.

“I think it's made me a little more ready for graduation somehow. Just ready to be done,” Oginni said. “Right now, I'm really looking forward to graduation and just being free.”