'It's a very uncertain time': Columbia students share their perspectives on the campus protests

Yahoo News visited Columbia University to hear from students about how the recent protests, and increased police presence on campus, is affecting them.

NEW YORK — Two weeks after the New York Police Department was called to break up a pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University, college campuses across the country have followed suit and set up their own encampments and protests. Hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested, classes have been canceled or gone virtual, and some schools have forgone a main commencement ceremony out of fear of the escalating tensions.

Columbia continues to be the center of the conversation. In the early morning of April 30, protestors occupied the school’s Hamilton Hall, which was famously taken over back in 1968 in protest of the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Later that evening, the hall was forcibly cleared by the NYPD.

Now, amid final exams and upcoming graduations, Columbia students are grappling with fluctuating tensions on campus, and the national attention these protests have received.

Yahoo News spoke to several Columbia students, most of whom asked to remain anonymous, some out of fear the school could punish them, to learn more about what the student body is experiencing during this time. Some of their comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

Columbia sophomore, 19

I'm a woman of color, I'm from the south, I dealt with racism my entire life. I came to Columbia to kind of escape that.

I personally have been told that I should be deported to Gaza. I see mostly a lot of coverage on antisemitism, which I think is so important to cover, but the school [is] in complete denial of any sort of racism or xenophobia happening to any other students.

Dozens of people, some wearing headscarves and holding Palestinian flags, stand near an iron gate.
Student pro-Palestinian protestors chant near an entrance to Columbia University on Tuesday, in New York City. (Michael M. Santiago/AFP)

Columbia graduate student, 31

I'm from Yemen. Going to Columbia is like a dream coming true. So I do want to have that [graduation] walk. But I think there are principles and values that are more important to me than just a graduation day.

Several people are seen near tents in front of what appears to be a university building. One holds a Palestinian flag.
Students protest at Columbia University on April 29, 2024. (AP Photo)

Columbia senior, 22

It's the last couple of weeks and the dining halls are shut off. The libraries are shut off for studying. Exams are a mess, they're probably not going to be in person. Commencement’s been up in the air. So it's a very uncertain time.

I'm shocked that, number one, students would resort to violence at Columbia, smash into buildings, barricade the doors. And I'm quite shocked as well by a lot of the messages that the students have been saying, supporting violence, supporting the eradication of the Jewish state in Israel.

I think it's scary when you have students who are fully disguised, who cover themselves to hide behind anonymity, who then engage in these acts of violence, who told us to go back to Europe. It's a very discomforting environment.

A person wearing a headscarf stands at a window above a sign reading: Hind's Hall
A student protester at a window at Hamilton Hall on Tuesday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

Columbia senior, 22

This issue is greater than commencement, especially considering it's a genocide happening in Gaza.

Student stands near dozens of tents near a building.
Pro-Palestinian student protestors camp at Columbia University campus in New York City on April 30, 2024. (Mary Altaffer/AFP)

Columbia freshman, 19

It’s when I see cops and guards with shields coming in that I begin to be scared.

The Hamilton [Hall] event, I don’t agree necessarily with what the protestors did. … [But] what the cops did yesterday is unacceptable and I, as a student, having all these events going on, don’t feel safe on campus whatsoever.

How can a student focus on finals or think about anything else other than our safety or if we are going to be arrested? The president should be ashamed of how she reacted to the events on campus and should step down.

A police officer stands at a temporary fence with a crowd to his back.
A police officer stands guard at Columbia University on Tuesday. (Kena Betancur/AFP)

Columbia graduate student, 27

Most days, the protests were peaceful. But then, when they brought the police to the campus, it kind of just changed. I myself, like, got very nervous because I don't — I'm not accustomed to that many police on campus.

There are a lot of cameras set up at the 116th St. gate. So that was very annoying for a lot of my classmates and friends. I know that because we don't want to be constantly filmed and, like, play in the background of every single news outlet.

I think a lot of the media coverage is mostly under the direction or on the advisory of the university administration and not really demonstrating the full picture. I know that the university is … moving finals online and extending deadlines for essays. But in general, it is just not a very friendly learning time.