05/19/2015 08:45 EDT | Updated 05/19/2016 05:59 EDT

Columbia student brings rape protest mattress to graduation

A 21-year-old visual arts student who's been making headlines all year with a provocative (and rather labourious) senior thesis project graduated from Columbia University on Tuesday — with a 50lb mattress in her hands.

Emma Sulkowicz has been hauling around an extra-long dorm room mattress since September, when she embarked upon a piece of endurance performance art to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus (and the alleged mishandling of such cases by school administrators.)

"I was raped in my own dorm bed, and since then that space has become fraught for me," she said in a Columbia Spectator video about the piece, which is called Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight). "And I feel like I've carried the weight of what happened there with me everywhere since then."

Sulkowicz, one of 23 students who've filed a federal Title IX complaint against Columbia for mishandling sexual assault cases, vowed at the inception of her project to carry the mattress everywhere until her alleged rapist, a fellow student, was expelled or left school on his own accord.

The student in question, Paul Nungesser, has said he didn't rape Sulkowicz and was cleared of the charge (as well as two others against him) by Columbia in 2013.

Last month, he filed a lawsuit against both Columbia and Sulkowicz' thesis advisor "for allowing his accuser to publicly brand him a 'serial rapist'," last month according to CNN.

Speculation as to whether or not Sulkowicz would carry the mattress with her to graduation ahead of Tuesday's ceremony is thought to have prompted an email sent to graduating seniors by university administrators on Monday.

"Graduates should not bring into the ceremonial area large objects which could interfere with the proceedings or create discomfort to others in close, crowded spaces shared by thousands of people," reads a portion of the email published by The Columbia Spectator.

The newspaper notes that this guideline was not included in communications about graduation to students before 2015.

And yet, despite this message, Sulkowicz was spotted in her blue cap and gown at the graduation ceremony on Tuesday, famed mattress in tow. 

Nungesser, a fellow graduating senior, was also present at the ceremony.

News reports and social media posts from the ceremony show that Sulkowicz carried her mattress into graduation and up on stage to receive her degree with the help of some friends.

She did not, however, shake university president Lee Bollinger's hand upon graduating, as is customary.

Whether or not this omission was intentional is not known, but the student body in general seemed pleased with the fact that Sulkowicz brought her mattress to the ceremony.

As seen a video uploaded to YouTube by The Columbia Spectator Tuesday, audience members cheered and clapped as Sulkowicz marched across the stage.