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From pandemic to protests, the Class of 2024 has been through a lot

Four years ago, Keilee Northcutt graduated near the top of her Tullahoma High School class in Tennessee. But instead of strutting across the stage in front of her proud parents, she was relegated to the front seat of her mom's car as they drove a lap around the football field, quickly grabbed her diploma, then drove home.

There were no smiling selfies with her besties, no class parties, and no fancy awards ceremony to fete the high achievers like her. Instead, she got a shoutout on Facebook.

Back then, it was COVID-19 that stole her moment. This time, as Northcutt prepares to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it's campus unrest that's threatening to rob her of a second chance at some pomp and circumstance.

Keilee Northcutt's high school graduation celebration was disrupted by COVID-19. Now she worries her MIT commencement ceremony could be canceled due to ongoing protests against the war in Gaza.
Tovia Smith / Tovia Smith
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Tovia Smith
Keilee Northcutt's high school graduation celebration was disrupted by COVID-19. Now she worries her MIT commencement ceremony could be canceled due to ongoing protests against the war in Gaza.

Tensions have been mounting on campus for months over the war in Gaza. In April, student protesters formed an encampment on MIT's Kresge Lawn, and ugly and increasingly violent confrontations ensued. Before dawnon Friday, police in riot gear started breaking down tents and arresting students who had been refusing to leave. MIT President Sally Kornbluth called it a "last resort" to keep the campus "physically safe and functioning for everyone."

Protestors have vowedto return, heightening security concerns for the school's upcoming combined commencement ceremony, planned for May 30th. Colleges across the nation, from Columbia University to the University of Southern California, have already canceled school-wide ceremonies because of similar unrest.

Northcutt says she's bracing for the worst while hoping for the best. "It'd be nice to actually go across the stage for once in my life," she says, adding that her parents made plans long ago to travel from Tennessee to attend.

"My parents have already booked tickets and hotels. So to have to tell them that I'm not graduating again, that would be a little rough."

But if the Class of 2024 has learned anything, it's to expect the unexpected.

Students still scarred by their "stunted and weird" freshman experience

They started college fully remote from their childhood bedrooms and kitchen tables, met their classmates only in 2D over Zoom, and strained to make any real connection with peers and professors. By the second semester, many students physically returned to campus but were still restricted to formally registered six-student pods.

MIT seniors Mikayla Britsch and Nicole Harris remember how hard it was to make friends while attending virtual classes as freshmen during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.
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NPR
MIT seniors Mikayla Britsch and Nicole Harris remember how hard it was to make friends while attending virtual classes as freshmen during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns.

"I feel like everyone in our year has only ten friends because our freshman year was so stunted and weird," explains MIT senior Mikayla Britsch. It is the scar tissue of the class of 2024: academic challenges of online learning, compounded by the social stresses of pandemic distancing.

Sitting in one of their last classes this week, Britsch and classmate Nicole Harris recalled the bad old days of COVID-19.

"It was doubly hard," says Harris. "I remember being super-stressed, trying to meet new people, but also worried about how to adjust to MIT classes."

"Yeah, I'm still traumatized by it," laughs Britsch.

The challenges would keep coming, with two tumultuous presidential elections, the racial reckoning that followed the police killing of George Floyd, and now, the upheaval since the Israel-Hamas war.

It's a lot – especially for this class that has endured more than their fair share.

"I was going back to my dorm and there were like hoards of state troopers out here," says Northcutt, recalling attempts earlier this week to clear the encampment. "That was actually kind of crazy."

Protests lead to new fears and new friends

MIT Senior Marylyn Meyers, who is Jewish, says the fear and division is even more intense now than it was during the pandemic.

"COVID was tough from a social perspective," she says. "But the hostile environment that exists now is way worse."

It's painful, Meyers says, to see classmates become so entrenched on opposing sides.

"People have been kicked out of study groups, they have been encircled by protesters, and I felt personally attacked by a lot of my peers saying horrible things about me," Meyers says. She no longer feels safe on campus.

Jamil Dellawer, an MIT student, says the experience of camping inside the barricades has been a positive one. "I've made a lot more friends here than I have over the past three years," he admits.
Tovia Smith / NPR
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NPR
Jamil Dellawer, an MIT student, says the experience of camping inside the barricades has been a positive one. "I've made a lot more friends here than I have over the past three years," he admits.

It is perhaps a sign of the depth of their divide that other students – who've been protesting, chanting, studying, eating and sleeping together inside the metal barricades of their encampment – describe their experience of these last few weeks as positive.

"Honestly, I've made a lot more friends here than I have over the past three years," says Jamil Dellawer, an MIT senior, sitting inside the encampment earlier this week. It's been great, he says, to meet so many like-minded students. "It's honestly really, really beautiful."

Another senior, Omar Dahleh, says he too has found a new community, and with it, new hope. A Palestinian Muslim from Jerusalem, Dahleh says he opposes "the construct of the Israeli state" and has found it heartening to connect with others who do, too.

"These moments will be etched into my mind for the rest of my life because, for the first time in a long time, I'm seeing a better future for my people is possible," he says. "It's not a distant dream."

Unique lessons in resilience and perspective for the graduating class

Meanwhile, students who aren't participating in the protests worry the ongoing unrest will disrupt their graduation celebrations.

Multiple commencement ceremonies have already been interrupted, including at Northeastern University's undergraduate ceremony last week, where one student was arrested after approaching the speakers' stage with a Palestinian flag.

Northeastern graduate John Cohen says he was most upset to see demonstrators with their hands painted red, a controversial symbol that he interprets as celebrating the killing of Jews.

"This was crazy, and it felt horrible honestly," says Cohen, who is Jewish. "You work so hard, and you have to sit there and watch these people throw your moment away. It's not okay."

Despite Gen Z's reputation as being emotionally fragile and pessimistic, Cohen is quick to add that all the disappointments and curveballs of the last four years only made him stronger.

"I used to be a bit more optimistic in general," he allows. "But right now I'm just rolling with the punches, seeing what life throws at you. That's the only thing you can do."

Resilience is definitely among the lessons learned the hard way by the Class of 2024; as is perspective. As one student puts it: it would be a shame if the commencement ceremony doesn't happen, but it's small stakes compared to the war that is on so many students' minds right now.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.