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From COVID-19 isolation to nationwide campus protests: Student journalists reflect on past 4 years

Alana Hackman, a senior at Cal Poly Humboldt, and Irie Sentner, a senior at Columbia University. (Courtesy)
Alana Hackman, a senior at Cal Poly Humboldt, and Irie Sentner, a senior at Columbia University. (Courtesy)

The last four years have been unlike any other period in modern American history, especially for graduating college seniors.

In 2020, students ended their high school careers isolated from loved ones because of the pandemic. Then, they started their freshman year of college with remote learning. Now, they’re getting ready to graduate as protests against the war in Gaza roil college campuses.

Irie Sentner from Durango, Colorado, is a graduating senior at Columbia University in New York City. Alana Hackman from Sacramento is finishing up at Cal Poly Humboldt in rural Northern California. The two student journalists — both first-generation college students — share their experiences.

7 questions with 2024 college graduates

What was your high school graduation like?

Irie Sentner: “I graduated in my car in the parking lot. I worked really hard in high school and so part of me was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get to have the full graduation experience, but I think the administrators there really did everything they could to make it special still.”

Alana Hackman: “I was in my best friend’s car. We all had gotten off of our part-time jobs. We drove through with our textbooks [and] handed them to one of our administrators. They handed us our diplomas, and we just drove away. And then a few weeks later, they had a live stream photo collage slideshow on YouTube for us to watch. And I just watched it in separate rooms from my family and friends.”

Paint a picture of starting college in 2020.

Sentner: “I was in New York City where everything was extremely locked down. I remember even the dining halls weren’t open and so there was an app that we had on our phones where we would choose what meal we wanted for the day and then it would be delivered to our lounge on whatever dorm room floor we were. And then we would walk with a mask from our room to the lounge to even eat.

“It was very strange being on this campus that I dreamed about being on for so long with only about 500 other people who had housing and being completely online for all of my courses.”

Hackman: “I was in a double dorm by myself. Similar situation, all of our meals were to go. And it’s already quite a rural town, so only having about 300 to 500  students living on campus that left halfway through the year, it was definitely eerie sometimes.”

What has it been like for you as a journalist and as a student to see the pro-Palestinian protests unfold on your own campus during this pivotal time? 

Sentner: “It’s been bizarre. As a student journalist with Columbia’s paper, the Columbia Daily Spectator, we’ve been following this since Oct. 7. So when people ask me if it’s been surprising to see the escalation, my answer is always no. Because if you look back on what was happening in the administrative response, I don’t think that this escalation is surprising whatsoever.

“What has been surprising is seeing the response on other campuses across the globe. I think it was really absolutely not what I thought I would be spending the last few weeks of my college recovering. But it’s been insane.”

Irie, you were covering the protests from inside Columbia. You were there when the NYPD moved in after students occupied Hamilton Hall.  

Sentner: “I was there reporting for Politico, which was my school internship. I thought it was just going to be a part-time thing, but it has skyrocketed to more than a full-time job in the past couple of weeks.”

Alana, you’re across the country at Cal Poly Humboldt, a much smaller school, and you were getting ready to hand over the reins of your student newspaper “The Lumberjack” to a new staff when protests also took off on your campus.  

Hackman: “This is something that you never expect to cover as a student journalist, and I know just like always being prepared is something that your journalism professors tell you, but just the fact that we were basically coming together and like duct taping bike helmets with ‘press’ on it so we knew our reporters would somewhat be safe is something I’ll really remember in these times.

“Witnessing the amount of police that they were able to bring to the school is crazy. And sending them in on our field trip buses is just so shocking and something that I think will stick with me forever because it’s just like mad. It’s crazy. I can’t believe that our school put that much effort and time into it when we have so many other things that we need addressing like housing and food and homeless student populations.”

As part of the fallout from the protests, both Columbia and Cal Poly Humboldt have decided to scale back their main commencement and have a few smaller ceremonies. Take your journalist hats off for a moment and tell us your reaction. What’s the emotion right now?

Sentner: “I am the first person in my family to graduate from college. My parents, my grandparents, they’re all coming in and they were really excited to see that moment. They still get to see me walk across the stage. It’s going to be, In an athletic stadium and not on campus, like it has been. They’re not going to get a full commencement, which I know is disappointing to them and a little bit disappointing to me as well.

“But at the end of the day, I think that administrators and protesters and everyone involved is really trying to do what they believe is best for the world and best for the students and their stakeholders. And so I can’t be too bothered by it.”

Hackman: “I’m a little sad. I also am a first-generation student. And there’s various different locations that they’re gonna have people graduating at but I’m at Blue Lake Casino and that already I know is kind of an issue because that was the casino and the hotel that housed all of the riot police.

“So it’s kind of dystopian in a way and it just feels a little strange. I mean, I’m excited. I have wonderful friends and people that I can still look forward to and make the best out of the situation, but it just feels kind of morally strange and weird to do so.”

What’s next for you?

Sentner: “I just signed the lease on my first apartment ever. I’m moving to Washington, D. C. to report for Politico full-time. I’m living with my best friend, who I met at the Columbia Daily Spectator, who’s reporting at USA Today. And we’re just gonna be two young journalists reporting in the nation’s capital and it’s a dream come true.”

Hackman: “I do have a few more classes left to finish for my degree over the summer, but hopefully get some freelance experience for the local publications here for a bit and then find my way out of Humboldt. It was wonderful, but I’m ready to flee the nest and go somewhere a bit more populated. I’m excited for what the future holds.”

This interview was edited for clarity.


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Michael Scotto. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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