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Class of 2024 reflects on college years marked by COVID-19, life’s lost milestones

LOS ANGELES — On a recent afternoon, Grant Oh zigzagged across the University of Southern California campus as if he was conquering an obstacle course, coming up against police blockade after police blockade on his way to his apartment while officers arrested demonstrators protesting the Israel-Hamas war.

In many ways, the chaotic moment was the culmination of a college life that started amid the pandemic and has been marked by continual upheaval in what has become a constant battle for normalcy. Oh already missed his prom and his high school graduation as COVID-19 surged in 2020. He started college with online classes. Now the 20-year-old will add another missed milestone to his life: USC has canceled its main commencement ceremony that was expected to be attended by 65,000 people.

His only graduation ceremony was in middle school and there were no caps and gowns.

“It’s crazy because I remember starting freshman year with the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which came after senior year of high school when the Black Lives Matter protests were happening and COVID, and xenophobia,” he said “It feels definitely surreal. It still shocks me that we live in a world that is so fired up and so willing to tear itself apart.”

Oh, who is getting a degree in health promotion and disease prevention, added that his loss of a memorable moment pales in comparison to what is happening: “At the end of the day, people are dying.”

College campuses have always been a hotbed for protests from the civil rights era to the Vietnam war to demonstrations over apartheid in South Africa. But students today also carry additional stresses from having lived through the isolation and fear from the pandemic, and the daily influence of social media that amplifies the world’s wrongs like never before, experts say.

It’s not just about missed milestones. Study after study shows Generation Z suffers from much higher rates of anxiety and depression than Millennials, said Jean Twenge, a psychologist and professor at San Diego State University, who wrote a book called “Generations.” She attributes much of that to the fact that negativity spreads faster and wider on social media than positive posts.

“Gen Z, they tend to be much more pessimistic than Millennials,” she said. “The question going forward is do they take this pessimism and turn it into concrete action and change, or do they turn it into annihilation and chaos?”

Protesters have pitched tents on campuses from Harvard and MIT to Stanford and the University of Texas, Austin, raising tensions as many schools prepare for spring commencements. Hundreds of students have been arrested across the country. Inspired by demonstrations at Columbia University, students at more than a dozen U.S. colleges have formed pro-Palestinian encampments and pledged to stay put until their demands are met.

The campus will be closed for the semester at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, which has been negotiating with students who have been barricaded inside a campus building since Monday, rebuffing an attempt by the police to clear them out.

USC announced Thursday that it would be calling off its main graduation ceremony after protests erupted over not only the Israel-Hamas war but the school’s decision earlier this month to call off the commencement speech by its valedictorian Asna Tabassum, who expressed support for Palestinians. Officials cited security concerns.

“By trying to silence Asna, it made everything way worse,” Oh said, adding that he hopes there will be no violence on graduation day May 10 when smaller ceremonies will be held by different departments.

Maurielle McGarvey graduated from high school in 2019 so was able to have a ceremony but then she took a gap year when many universities held classes only online. McGarvey, who is getting a degree in screenwriting with a minor in gender and social justice studies at USC, called the cancellations “heartbreaking,” and said the situation has been grossly mishandled by the university. She said police with batons came at her yelling as she held a banner while she and fellow demonstrators said a Jewish prayer.

“It’s definitely been like an overall diminished experience and to take away like the last sort of like typical thing that this class was allowed after having so many weird restrictions, so many customs and traditions changed,” she said. “It’s such a bummer.”

She said the email by the university announcing the cancellation particularly stung with its link to photos of past graduates in gowns tossing up their caps and cheering. “That’s just insult to injury,” she said.

Students at other universities were equally glum.

“Our grade is cursed,” said Abbie Barkan of Atlanta, 21, who is graduating from the University of Texas in two weeks with a journalism degree and who was among a group of Jewish students waving flags and chanting at a counter-protest Thursday near a pro-Palestinian demonstration on campus.

University of Minnesota senior Sarah Dawley, who participated in pro-Palestinian protests, is grateful graduation plans have not changed at her school. But she said the past weeks have left her with a mix of emotions. She’s been dismayed to watch colleges call in police.

But she said she also feels hope after having gone through the pandemic and become part of a community that stands up for what they believe in.

“I think a lot of people are going to go on to do cool things because after all this, we care a lot,” she said.

Watson reported from San Diego. AP journalists Stefanie Dazio and Eugene Garcia in Los Angeles, Mark Vancleave in Minneapolis, Jim Vertuno and Acacia Coronado in Austin, Texas, and Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.