Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emotions split at commencement amid pro-Palestine protests

A student waves a Palestinian flag and holds up their hand, on which is written, “Ceasefire now.” (Rian Nelson/Beacon Staff)

A sense of excitement and nervousness filled the air of Agganis Arena as friends and family of Emerson graduates filed in for the 2024 Commencement Ceremony.  

This year, pro-Palestine protesters took center stage at the May 12 commencement ceremony, chanting during speeches, waving Palestinian flags, and wearing keffiyehs.

The protests followed weeks of unrest on campus in the aftermath of the April 25 arrests,where 118 pro-Palestine protesters were arrested at the “Popular University Encampment,” and the March 22 arrests, where 12 Emerson students and one non-Emerson student were arrested outside Cutler Majestic Theater. 

Splashes of color could be seen among the black caps and gowns. Student organization symbols on tassels were featured along with decorated caps displaying a wide range of artistic imagery, including pro-Palestinian caps and gowns with keffiyehs draped over top of them.  

The college expressed disappointment in the protests, criticizing students for disrupting the ceremony. 

“Our main priority was celebrating the achievements of the Class of 2024. We are deeply disappointed that protesters disrupted our ceremony and distracted from their classmates’ experience. We strongly disapprove of the acrimony some students showed toward our speakers and leaders,” the College said in a statement to the Beacon.       

The ceremony opened with a processional movement led by Grooversity, an innovative and creative drumming project that Emerson utilizes at its opening ceremony for freshmen and an indication to begin graduation for Emerson students to symbolize coming full circle in their academic journey. 

The Call to Order was led by Michael Brown, assistant professor and the college’s grand marshal, instead of the Board of Trustees Chair Eric Alexander. Alexander gained a lot of negative attention from the Emerson community after he told a student to “back the fuck up” at the April 30 Town Hall.

One attendee began chanting “Ain’t no power like the power of the people because the power of the people don’t stop” immediately after Brown spoke. Other students chanted the phrase back and audience members booed, causing  Brown to raise his voice during his speech. 

The program went out of order with commencement speaker Randy Barbato ‘82’s speech being delivered sooner than scheduled.

Barbato is an acclaimed director and producer, most notable for his work as a producer on Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Barbato’s speech highlighted his career and his time at Emerson and gave subtle references to current events.

“In these dark and uncertain times, there’s only one thing I am certain about, and it’s our desire to have peace and humanity everywhere,” Barbato said.

The Presidential Address was moved later into the ceremony. President Jay Bernhardt honored the graduates from the Honors Program, Comedic Arts, and Performing Arts. 

A graduate holds a sign reading “Emerson Funds Genocide”. (Rian Nelson/Beacon Staff)

The first student to walk across the stage, Ray Chevertom, threw their cap and gown on the ground, grabbing a small Palestinian flag. This was followed by a wave of pro-Palestine and anti-Bernhardt expressions seen throughout the ceremony.

Several students also refused to shake Bernhardt’s hand. Others walked past and ignored him and other college officials after receiving their diplomas.

A handful of students threw their caps and gowns down at Bernhardt’s feet. Others chanted or yelled phrases relating to the pro-Palestine movement as they walked across the stage. 

The livestream cameras would often turn off as students protested. 

Interim Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jan Roberts-Breslin presented the teacher awards. Scott Pinkney, a performing arts teacher, won the Helaine and Stanley Miller Award for Outstanding Teaching. Ellie Beargon, an affiliated faculty member, won the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. Jae M. Williams, an executive-in-residence, won the Alumni Award for Teaching Innovation. 

Roberts-Breslin also granted emeritus status to seven retiring professors: Ben Brooks, Sarah Hickler, Roger House, Gian Lombardo, Scott Pinkney, Micheal Selig, and James Sheldon. Emeritus status is given to retiring or retired members of the faculty by the Board of Trustee members. The retiring staff has a record of distinguished service or achievement at Emerson.  

Bernhardt then presented the Honorary Degrees, which are ceremonial diplomas given to previous graduates to highlight the significant impacts they have made in their respective fields.

The first honorary degree was given to Barbato. Barbato’s citation was given by Ronee Penoi, the interim executive director of the Office of the Arts.

“While it may not have been a linear path from Emerson to RuPaul, your time on campus was hugely influential in your life,” Penoi said addressing Barbato. “You said that ‘Emerson created an environment that made me realize that I could pursue my passion or dream without editing myself, without being anyone other than who I am.’”

Following Penoi’s words, Bernhardt bestowed the honor upon Barbato, Barbato thanked Bernhardt for the honor, joking, “So I’m a doctor? Does that mean I can write prescriptions?” which was met with laughter from the crowd.

Douglas Holloway ‘76, a board director and former president at many major TV cable companies, was then honored. Holloway’s citation was given by Alexander, where Alexander highlighted Holloway’s diverse background of experiences and accomplishments, including some of Holloway’s recent developments in the TV scene. 

“More recently, you launched two multicultural urban streaming channels, UKW Media and Urban TV, which offer content for primarily Black, Asian, Latino, and indigenous families,” Alexander said. “Because in your words, we want kids to grow up seeing people who look like that, obviously.”

Holloway said the honor pays homage to his parents and many Black parents across the country and is representative of the school’s cultural ethos. 

“Emerson College has long been a beacon of creativity, innovation, and expression. It is a place where ideas flourish, where dreams take place, and where passion finds its voice,” said Holloway. “My television career, dreams, and aspirations were formed right here … I am grateful to Emerson for that.”

Holloway acknowledged his position on the Board of Trustees, and how they have dealt with unique issues in recent years, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and “the divide of issues in the Middle East.”

“I’m here to tell you that we respect and we honor our entire Emerson community.” In between his speech, a student chanted “Free, Free Palestine,” which led to additional chants and boos during and after his speech in response. 

As the crowd’s mixed responses got quieter, Holloway said, “We honor and respect the entire Emerson Community” and added that the graduates in the room are the future. 

“As we celebrate this moment, we will all be grateful for you. As we celebrate this moment, let us recommit ourselves to lifelong learning, to seek new knowledge, fostering empathy, and using our voices to uplift others.” Holloway said as the crowd chanted, cheered, and booed.

The last person to be honored was Albert M. Jaffe. Spencer Kimbal, who gave Jaffe’s citation, called him a “power broker of sports broadcasting, legendary ESPN executive, [and] dedicated alumnus.” 

Jaffe’s career features working for several broadcast organizations, including WHDH, WCVB, KOVR, and ESPN, where Jaffe “hired and negotiated contracts for numerous sports personalities.” 

Several students chanted “We keep us safe” during Bernhardt’s Presidential Address, which was less than two minutes. More than 20 students formed a line raising their fists or pointing middle fingers up at Bernhardt directly, encouraging and leading chants. The human barricade of students was not shown on the college’s video livestream.  

“We are so proud of you, all you have accomplished, and all you will accomplish. Congratulations from all of us to the Class of 2024,” Bernhardt said over the chants.

Chants continued as the Visual and Media Arts Department graduates received their diplomas. Roberts-Breslin then welcomed the senior Commencement Speaker Joe Nalieth.

“May we breathe in the collective weight of our experience these last four years, the communities we’ve built, the memories we’ve made, and the beautiful projects we brought to life,” said Nalieth, who graduated with a BFA in acting. “And we breathe out all of the sleepless nights, the self-doubt, and the stress and anxiety that comes with being a creative in these times.”

Nalieth, who was arrested at the “Popular University Encampment,” paid homage to the encampment and spoke about how Emerson students are prepared to take over and shape creative industries.

“We, the students, are champions of radical inclusivity, of the boundless, unifying love that transcends borders,” said Nalieth. “Our spirit cannot be contained between the steep walls of the alley … Our message cannot be washed away with chalk.”

Nalieth highlighted that Emerson students’ voices have an echo on campuses across the world, “especially those campuses that have been reduced to rubble.”

Nalieth ended his speech asking his peers to not just aim for success but to redefine it. 

“My fellow Emersonians, let’s turn your page and start riding our next great adventure,” Nalieth concluded.

Following the standing ovation for Nalieth’s speech, Maria Scott, an assistant professor, presented the Dean of Campus Life Award to Danella López White. This award is annually given to an outstanding graduating senior, who has demonstrated their commitment to the betterment of the Emerson community.

“[López White] has given her literal blood, sweat, and tears to enhance [Emerson] a better place,” Scott said. López White served as the President of Zeta Phi Eta, increasing membership, while also working as a student ambassador, orientation leader, and coordinator for Emerson. Additionally, she is the vice president of membership for the Emerson Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America

After being honored by Scott, López White smiled and waved as the crowd cheered, mouthing “Free Palestine” into the camera.

Following the Dean of Campus Life Award, Lu Ann Reeb, the Journalism Department head, presented the Presidential Citation. This award is given to recognize a member of the graduating class who’s demonstrated in their time at Emerson the qualities that define the school’s core values, integrity, intelligence, creativity, and a commitment to civic engagement and community service at Emerson, according to Reeb. 

This award was given to Sophia Pargas, who served on the E-board of Alpha Epsilon Phi, a student fellow in the Engagement Lab, and the editor-in-chief of The Berkeley Beacon this past semester.   

Reeb noted that being the editor-in-chief of the Beacon the past month has been a large undertaking due to the extensive coverage of the campus protests.  

“As the Beacon’s editor-in-chief this year, she exhibited great journalistic integrity, humanity, and leadership during a really challenging time on campus,” said Reeb.

Following these awards, the graduates from the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department; the Marlboro Institute; Communication Sciences and Disorders Department; Communication Studies Department; Journalism Department; Marketing Communication Department; and students who had duel enrolment in Longy School of Music, prepared to graduate. 

The first student to cross the stage, Sadia Tawfik AboHussien, removed her gown revealing the text “Emerson Has Blood” on her shirt, featuring symbols of bloody hands around the text, before throwing her diploma aside and sticking her middle fingers up at Bernhardt as she left the stage. 

A student stands front and center, presenting a red-stained t-shirt, reading, “Emerson has blood on its hands.” (Rian Nelson/Beacon Staff)

Other students acted similarly, some standing at the front of the stage letting the crowd see their clothing which featured protest messaging. Amun Prophet threw their cap and gown aside and proceeded to stop the ceremony by talking to Bernhardt, seemingly scolding him. As Emerson leaders talked with the students, the livestream paused, waiting for the encounter to conclude. 

Soon after, another student placed a Palestinian flag over the main speaker’s podium, receiving a mix of boos and cheers from the audience. 

Grooversity returned to play their drums as they walked out of the room, officially concluding the 2024 Commencement Ceremony. A group of protesters and students gathered in front of the stage chanting and dancing as they had been throughout the ceremony. 

Outside of Agganis Arena, loved ones gathered to celebrate the graduates’ accomplishments in a festive scene. The tensions were put aside for a moment, and both protesters and non-protesters joined as one student body.

A student protester and graduated senior embraces their family member in celebration of graduating. (Sam Shipman/Beacon Staff)
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About the Contributor
Sam Shipman
Sam Shipman, Assistant News Editor
Sam Shipman (He/Him) is a freshman journalism major from Natick, Massachusetts. He currently is a Staff Writer for the Berkeley Beacon. When he's not reporting he can be found listening to music or spending time with friends.

Comments (4)

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  • M

    Mark M Stewart / May 21, 2024 at 1:05 am

    The administration bought this infantile display of misguided Brechtian agit-prop theater by not pushing back immediately when the Che wannabes started playing follow the leader in the alley. If you let the malcontents dictate the terms, they will keep pushing the goalposts back. The generation raised on If You Give a Mouse a Cookie took that lesson and added in Saul Alinsky. Shame on all of you infantile spoiled entitled unmannered tools for ruining what should have been a day of joy for the 95% of the civilized human beings in attendance.
    Mark M Stewart, Esq. Class of 1977

    • N

      None / May 22, 2024 at 9:53 pm

      I would rather call Saul than call you for representation. A man who refers to student protesters as “infantile spoiled entitled unmannered tools” (sic) is unhinged.

      Civilized people do not ignore genocide.

  • E

    Edward Schreiber / May 19, 2024 at 8:07 am

    Painful to both sides. Reminds me of my time at Emerson when we protested Viet Nam and we stood up for EBONY. Also painful to see for other reasons.

  • E

    Edward Schreiber / May 18, 2024 at 9:48 pm

    Painful to read