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Rice’s COVID class graduates amid nation-wide campus protests

Rice's class of 2024 graduated Saturday, May 4, during the university's 111th commencement. Courtesy Brandon Martin

By Sarah Knowlton     5/6/24 4:28pm

Rice held its 111th commencement ceremony Saturday, May 4 at Rice Stadium. The class of 2024 walked through the Sallyport, which is currently closed amid ongoing construction of the academic quad, but was temporarily reopened for commencement. For the second year in a row, all undergraduate commencement events were condensed into one day — prior to 2023, ceremonies were typically spread out over a two-day span.

Several students donned keffiyehs and waved small Palestinian flags as they crossed the stage. In the stands, unidentified demonstrators briefly waved a banner saying “Reggie funds genocide,” leaving after a few minutes. A university representative declined to provide comment about the banner.

As the semester ends, protests over the war in Gaza have swept campuses across the country. Both Columbia and USC have canceled their main commencements, while demonstrators have protested at ceremonies for the University of Michigan and Indiana University. Photo courtesy John “Grungy” Gladu

Across the country, protests over the war in Gaza have engulfed college campuses, just in time for graduation ceremonies. On Monday morning, Columbia University announced it will cancel its university-wide commencement ceremonies, shortly after the New York Police Department conducted sweeps of an encampment and occupied academic building, culminating in the arrest of over 100 demonstrators

The University of Southern California canceled its valedictorian’s commencement speech on April 15, citing safety concerns. Four days later, the university “released” its outside commencement speakers before canceling the main-stage ceremony altogether. On May 4, pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanted, marched and walked out during commencement ceremonies at the University of Michigan and Indiana University.

At Rice, the ceremony began with a brief address from Robert Ladd, chairman of Rice’s Board of Trustees. Ladd highlighted the staff, faculty, students and alumni who create the university’s past and future.

“Graduates, you leave our campus well-prepared,” Ladd said. “You carry with you the legacy of all of us who came before you. You are the future of Rice. Help us to continue to make Rice even better in the years to come.”

Courtesy Gustavo Raskosky

Next on stage was McMurtry College graduating senior Abhi Gorjala, representing the first class of undergraduate business majors at Rice. Gorjala’s speech focused on the graduating class’ perseverance amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Throughout the past four years, our class has encountered hurdles that have tested our resilience,” Gorjala said. “If those past four years have proven anything, we’ve made each other better the entire way.”

President Reggie DesRoches spoke after Gorjala, also discussing the difficulties of matriculating during a pandemic — and highlighting his unique relationship with the class of 2024.

“I will forever have a special connection to this class, the class of 2024,” DesRoches said. “While you were starting as freshmen at Rice, I was starting as your new provost and chief academic officer. You started pursuing your Rice degree during a pandemic that shook the way we and the world operated; you undoubtedly were robbed of precious moments to engage in person with others on campus. 

“You also have been at Rice during an unbelievable time of transition,” DesRoches continued. “New leadership; new ways of teaching and learning born out of the pandemic; new buildings, and yes, a new quad. This class is the first to see the new space, which you did a few minutes ago. You were also in college during what many consider the most complicated time in modern history.”

DesRoches concluded by emphasizing the lessons and connections that graduates made during their time at Rice.

“As you step out into the world beyond these familiar walls, I challenge you to cherish these lessons and never stop learning, never stop growing, never underestimate the power that you have to change the world,” DesRoches said. “Don’t forget the importance of being respectful to others and [being] grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given.”

Courtesy Gustavo Raskosky

The commencement speaker’s address was delivered by Peggy Whitson ‘86. Whitson received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rice, going on to become “America’s most experienced astronaut.” In her speech, Whitson encouraged graduates to be flexible with their plans for the future and accept new perspectives. 

“You are the only one who knows what is right for you. Parents, friends, professors — and even me — are all willing to give you opinions, but you need to evaluate your choices based on what feels right for you,” Whitson said. “There is no one path for the unique journey each of you will

make. Some might take the freeways, others meandering gravel roads or rocky trails, and some will go entirely off-trail, blazing a new path, maybe in an entirely unexpected direction.”

Whitson also advised the class of 2024 to continue accepting change, as they have done throughout their college careers, as they begin their postgraduate lives.

“You are not the same person you were when you arrived at Rice. You have learned a lot about yourself and the world, and you can expect your journey forward in life will continue to be full of change,” Whitson said. “Embrace it.”

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