Howard University’s iconic, nine-day homecoming celebration made an in-person return this week, for the first time in two years.

The pandemic forced 2020 festivities online, a sacrifice to protect the community from a potential superspreader event, Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard’s president, said last year. The cultural staple attracts thousands of students, alumni, faculty and staff — from Howard and beyond — to the campus in Northwest Washington.

Now, with the protection of coronavirus vaccines, a handful of in-person events are back, including a pep rally and this Saturday’s football game. Yardfest, an outdoor concert and gathering on one of the university’s main quadrangles, is typically one of the biggest attractions of the homecoming weekend, but this year it will be a smaller affair, with a ticketed concert at Cramton Auditorium open only to students. Several online and hybrid events — the student fashion show, a state of the university address and a virtual party for alumni — are also on the agenda.

But looming over the festivities is a protest, now in its second week, over housing and student representation. As students cheered on a men’s basketball scrimmage in Burr Gymnasium, others were studying in tents at a protest site outside the student center just blocks away.

“The fact that we had to have a protest is affecting people’s mood,” said Lailah Weatherspoon, a junior studying computer science, as she waited for the doors to the pep rally to open. “But the protests wouldn’t have had to happen if there weren’t issues that needed to be fixed.”

According to students, the scene on campus encompassed two truths at the nation’s largest private historically Black university: Howard is worthy of celebration but also deserving of criticism.

“It’s still nice to have this reunion and moments where you can have fun,” said Kayla Jacobs, a junior studying psychology. “But with everything going on with the protests, you realize it’s not all sunflowers and rainbows.”

Howard’s homecoming follows a challenging period at the university. First, the pandemic upended the 2020 school year and canceled beloved traditions. The student body — nearly 12,000 people — returned this fall but met difficulties almost immediately. Juniors and seniors have struggled to secure housing on and off campus. Many students in residence halls have complained of mold, flooding and mice. Students and faculty said they faced WiFi outages during the first weeks of school, and then a ransomware cyberattack canceled days of classes.

A decision to phase out student, faculty and alumni affiliate trustee positions from the school’s governing board sparked controversy, too.

University officials last week said they will continue to “develop new ways to encourage meaningful and truly representative leadership from its students.” In response to facilities issues, Cynthia Evers, Howard’s vice president of student affairs, said the mold issues were not widespread and that maintenance crews were conducting mold remediation and heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning duct-cleaning in affected rooms. Officials added that students who reported issues related to mold or flooding had been offered options to relocate.

Tuition, which increased this school year from about $26,000 to more than $28,000, has also been a point of contention for students already struggling financially. The university on Thursday announced that $11 million in federal pandemic-relief funding will be distributed to students “facing urgent needs in affording tuition and fees, food, housing, technology, child care, medical and mental health care, and other expenses” — an average of $834 per student.

The university on Thursday declined to comment on the protests. Frederick, the university’s president, also declined an interview request.

For some, homecoming offers an opportunity to focus, instead, on Howard’s successes. The school has announced high-profile faculty appointments, as well as major donations from Netflix, author and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott and, recently, Eddie and Sylvia Brown, responsible for the largest alumni donation in Howard’s history. The university recently renamed its fine arts college after the late actor and alumnus Chadwick Boseman. Alumna Kamala D. Harris ascended to the vice presidency, a first for any woman.

The tradition of homecoming, at Howard or any historically Black college or university, is a sacred opportunity for the community to celebrate those wins, students and alumni said.

“I’m looking forward to everyone coming together,” Deja Woodson, a freshman biology student, said about homecoming week. “I came to Howard for a sense of community and a sense of belonging.”

Students pulled out their most fashionable outfits and snapped selfies Tuesday night outside Burr Gymnasium, where Howard’s basketball and volleyball teams compete. Inside, students rapped along to the DJ’s hip-hop set.

“Make some noise if you’re excited to be here for Bison Madness!” Little Bacon Bear, an on-air radio personality for 93.9 WKYS FM, shouted into a microphone. The crowd erupted into cheers when the Showtime marching band performed, its members moving in mesmerizing unison. Music blared from the gym’s speakers as the Bisonettes, Howard’s dance team, hit every step of their routine.

But for students like Chandler Robinson, a freshman and psychology major, the problems on campus are a reason to boycott homecoming. The Live Movement, a group of student organizers, is instead planning its own slate of events.

“We’re not moving until our demands are met,” Robinson said. Students have occupied the Blackburn University Center, a student hub on campus, since Oct. 12. The demonstration has lasted longer than a student-led protest over similar concerns in 2018.

Robinson has been working to steer attention toward the protest. She posted a video to TikTok that has amassed more than 560,000 views. “I have friends personally who are out of a home,” Robinson said in the video. “Their belongings have been damaged to the point where they can no longer use them.”

Demonstrators have outlined four demands: an in-person town hall with Frederick and other officials before the end of the month; the permanent reinstatement of the affiliate trustee positions; a meeting with university leaders about housing; and legal, disciplinary and academic immunity for protesters.

In a meeting with two student leaders, Frederick said he did not have the power to grant academic immunity on behalf of faculty, but agreed to schedule a meeting with students over housing plans, reported the Hilltop, Howard’s student newspaper.

But the other demands remain unmet, Robinson said. About 50 students — who are in the throes of midterms — have been sleeping, eating and taking virtual classes inside Blackburn. Students have erected about 20 tents outside the building, each occupied by three to five students, Robinson added.

“That builds community, and we’ve all become very close,” Robinson said. “It’s very much a family.”

Demonstrators have relied on food, water and other donations from local community organizations, as well as individuals. Students from schools including the University of the District of Columbia, the city’s other HBCU, have shown solidarity in person and online.

Celebrities, public officials and others, including the children of Martin Luther King Jr., are also supporting students.

“I am both disappointed to hear the concerns of students at #HowardUniversity & proud of them for their bravery throughout this peaceful sit-in,” Martin Luther King III wrote Monday on Twitter. “Historically, students & young people have been the life force of many movements, including ones led by my father.”

Bernice King, in a tweet, told the university to “raise your housing standards.”

Members of Howard’s faculty senate have joined students and alumni on the affiliate trustee issue.

“As it stands, it appears the elimination of affiliate trustees is a tragic step backward from shared governance,” the group wrote.

Meanwhile, students are still flocking to homecoming events. Alumni — who are not allowed to attend most in-person events this year because of covid restrictions — are tuning in online.

Students showed up early Thursday morning to secure tickets for the Greek Step Show, a showcase of the university’s fraternities and sororities. The highly anticipated Yardfest concert is scheduled for Friday evening, and Howard’s football team will face off against Norfolk State University on Saturday.

Randy Brumant, a graduate student and forward on Howard’s basketball team, has heard stories about homecoming but said that attending as a Howard student was “wild.” Brumant, who played for Columbia University as an undergraduate, said he was happy to see the throng of students lined up outside the gym Tuesday night.

“The last time I played with a crowd was March 2020,” Brumant said. It’s exciting, he added, “to be able to get together again.”