photography of people graduating
The Class of 2024 is graduating with incredibly high tuition bills. Credit: Emily Ranquist

The Class of 2024 has lost so much. Don’t take away their graduation, too!

That’s the refrain from folks concerned about the numerous cancellations of that all-important rite of walking in a cap and gown to collect a diploma. After all, this particular cohort of undergraduates missed that opportunity four years ago—just weeks after the Covid-19 pandemic forced a global shutdown. 

But what if that’s precisely why…they might not really care? 

It’s worth thinking about this as we contend with campus protests over the war in Gaza, the rising costs of college, and the moral compass of a generation moving decidedly away from the norms of those who came before. We should also consider what happens now as they move from campuses into our workplaces and neighborhoods. 

To be sure, caps and gowns and families filled New York City last week. A lot of people clung to tradition, took iconic pictures at Grand Central and Central Park, and had dinner at Carmine’s. Then there were those who shunned the regalia, refused to shake a president’s hand or hosted alternate ceremonies with viral messaging. The choices of this particular class amid upheaval—economic, political, societal, technological—feels impossible to walk back from. 

They’ve been here before. The Class of 2020, as they were known four years ago, stepped out in the midst of a pandemic, racial justice protests embroiling the U.S., and a presidential election. If anything, this backdrop sets the stage for their reactions now, facing similar conditions and perhaps even the backsliding of progress and on promises. 

We’re all immigrants now 

In 2020, I was asked to give a graduation speech at Columbia. As it happened in some cases this month, despite the main commencement being canceled, there were several ceremonies students could participate in. One was for Asian American students, and they asked me to address them in my virtual remarks. I likened the sacrifices we were making during Covid-19 to what immigrant families have endured for generations. An excerpt is here. Back then, I said: 

As Asians, our arrivals and stories vary, but one common thread emerges: Migration is uncertainty. The challenges we complained about when the pandemic began—not being able to travel, not being able to see friends and family—are challenges my Indian immigrant parents endured for years, partly a result of starting out with little, partly because their thrifty ways then stuck. Perhaps this is your parents’ story. Perhaps this is your story…This story, this fraught history of ours in America, is oddly reassuring right now. It is as if our ancestors really embody the sentiment of Maxine Hong Kingston, who said: “In a time of destruction, create something.”

I’d like to think that the Class of 2024 has been doing this all along. Institutions have let them down over and over – dating back to pre-pandemic years– and what we dismiss as intergenerational conflicts stem from very real catastrophes over wages not keeping up with the cost of housing, or pretty much everything else (groceries, childcare, college tuition). You can understand why my generation’s assurances that they need to keep their heads down and work harder might not be entirely trusted. 

It’s the economy, stupid

This class also contends with sky-high tuition bills against questions over the value of a college diploma. Over the last few years, I have noticed Facebook parent groups fill with anecdotes of this same generation shunning conventions such as prom (dressing up and skipping the country club function for dinner out with friends or a night on the town) and traditional four-year colleges. Their parents cling to nostalgia; dress up, decorate a dorm, be more like us. 

person holding white scroll
The nostalgia may be more about the feelings of older folks rather than younger graduates. Credit: Gül Işık

It’s too late. We are seeing a tug-of-war between consumers (American families) and college administrators testing just how much higher they can hike up their prices. The demand for selective universities outstrips supply right now but that data point hardly counters the fundamental question: Do you need a college degree? 

WTF, real world

Graduation cards infamously welcome recipients to the real world. What is so ironic about the last few months of media coverage on Gaza through the lens of college campuses is how it affords us the luxury of not addressing these same issues in our current realities, list-servs to workplaces. What happens now as these graduates leave the encampments they’ve set up and demand to know where we stand? You can only deride campus protests as pesky and ineffective for so long before their premise surfaces as a real issue with which we must deal. The ballot box, for example. 

Welcome to the real world, we tell them. Perhaps they’ve been there all along.

S. Mitra Kalita is a veteran journalist, media executive, prolific commentator and author of two books. In 2020 she launched Epicenter-NYC, a newsletter to help New Yorkers get through the pandemic. Mitra...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.