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UNC's 2024 Commencement ceremony occurs in the face of instability

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Graduates throw their caps in the air in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

The class of 2024 graduated with a bang as they were honored at UNC's 2024 Commencement ceremony, hosting a range of remarks related to global and campus issues as tensions remain high worldwide.

The ceremony had various speakers who emphasized how their own journey at UNC impacted the trajectory of their lives, using their own experiences to speak to graduates.

The main Commencement ceremony began around 7 p.m. in Kenan Stadium, packed with families as the sun set. Messages played on video screens before the event, stating that anyone who did not leave or put down signs when asked would be arrested.

Before speakers began, an opening video capturing the class of 2024’s experience at UNC played on the stadium’s video screen. As the video played, students booed when interim Chancellor Lee Roberts appeared and cheered at the appearance of former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz. Students booed again when Roberts took the podium to begin the ceremony, showing their dissatisfaction with him and his actions while he has been interim chancellor.

The event consisted of a welcome by Roberts, including material that added to the tense atmosphere of the ceremony. He said that being the university of the people meant that UNC contained “all that is great, and all that is troubling,” about society.

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Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts speaks during the commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

“It means that Carolina doesn’t belong to you,” Roberts said as he was booed by students. “It sure doesn’t belong to me. It doesn't belong to any one person or group.”

Other notable events included Board of Trustees Chair John Preyer’s remarks, beginning by praising UNC and UNC Police, saying that the University had “the number one university police department in the world,” as he was booed by some of the crowd and applauded by others. He responded by telling the crowd to show respect to officers, calling for a round of applause.

Commencement speaker Zena Cardman, a NASA astronaut who is commanding a mission to the International Space Station, took to the podium with words of wisdom and lessons she learned from her time at UNC.

“You made it through a pandemic, lockdowns, tragedy and upheaval, and you still work together in advocacy for greater causes, and for those who do not have a voice,” Cardman said. “You have made injustice your enemy. You lift each other up. That is a Carolina legacy I am honored to be part of.”

Cardman also said to the graduating class that she was proud of what they had accomplished so far, and looked forward to the possibilities their futures held as trailblazers.

“You are already experts at navigating unexpected topographies that were not even on the map and your work will make the trail easier for those who come after you,” Cardman said

After the honorary degree presentation, and a few minutes into Roberts’ charge to the graduates, a group of about 10 students got up from their seats, two holding Palestinian flags. The students walked out of the ceremony, escorted out of the stadium by the police. A mix of boos, claps and chants of “U.S.A.” were heard from students and the crowd.

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Protesters walk down the aisle with a Palestinian flag during the commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

The ceremony ended with a speech from Senior Class President Lauryn Lovett, a performance of “Carolina In My Mind,” by UNC a cappella group The Clef Hangers, and fireworks that filled Kenan Stadium as graduates experienced their final moments as UNC students and tossed their caps.

For some in the class of 2024, Commencement centered around the societal instability addressed by the event’s speakers and protesters.

The Commencement was juxtaposed with another ceremony held that morning by pro-Palestine demonstrators to commemorate suspended seniors and community members involved in the "Triangle Gaza Solidarity Encampment" that took place on UNC's campus a couple of weeks ago, according to a UNC Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram post.

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A graduate holds their cap and diploma from "The People's Graduation" which took place at the Peace and Justice Plaza on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

The graduates of "The People's Graduation" were presented with printed-out diplomas with degrees such as a "Bachelor of Arts in Care, Support, and Community" and a "Bachelor of Science in Dealing with Administration." Degree recipients donned in graduation robes, caps and masks or scarves showed off their diplomas to attendees.

Following the ceremony, demonstrators moved to the Bell Tower and later, South Building, setting up an encampment with several tents at both locations to protest UNC's financial involvement in the Israel-Hamas War in Gaza. Protesters poured red paint on the steps of South Building and placed red handprints on the columns outside, representing the blood of those injured and killed in the conflict, which UNC Facilities workers later cleaned off. 

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Pro-Palestine protesters put their hands in red paint outside of South Building on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

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Demonstrators also wrote messages such as "Lee Roberts is a fascist" in marker on the outside of South Building. They taped images to the front door depicting Roberts with a Confederate flag behind him, along with a sign with a drawing of Roberts’ face with a red handprint over it, calling him a pig.

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A second "Gaza Solidarity Camp" was set up in front of South Building where protesters then threw balloons of red paint onto the steps on Saturday, May 11, 2024.

The group moved to the front of New West, chanting as families and graduates walked past. They then moved to the lawn of McCorkle Place, near the Old Well where many graduates were taking photos. Police observed the scene from near the Old Well, not engaging, even as their presence grew over the afternoon and were there until the evening.

@a_nanyabusiness | university@dailytarheel.com