Welcome Back, Students!

| August 14, 2015

The Pit Comes Back to Life on the UNC Campus

This weekend is move-in day for UNC-Chapel Hill students attending the 2015-16 academic year. There is always an overnight infusion of youthful energy when the students arrive back in town.

As a local Chapel Hillian, I am always excited about the return of UNC students to campus. Overnight, our town’s population increases by 29,000 students, which more than doubles the population of year-round residents. This sudden influx of enthusiastic, pedagogically-minded inhabitants, mostly ages 18-22, can feel a little jarring after the tranquil summer during which we enjoy less traffic, ample downtown parking, shorter lines at restaurants, sparsely populated grocery stores, and peaceful Saturday nights. However, these benefits aside, Chapel Hill simply does not feel the same without our students here.

The Old Well and Old East

Chapel Hill is a college town through and through, and one has never existed without the other. On October 12, 1793, the first lot was sold for the first building of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which would become Old East, and on the same day, the first lot was sold to the town of Chapel Hill where the first residents would build their homes in 1795. In 1819, the town was founded specifically to serve the University of North Carolina and thus, grew up around it. Without the University, there would be no Chapel Hill — or at least not the Chapel Hill that we love calling home. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is our largest local employer, with over 16,000 staff and faculty on its payroll. Additionally, the University brings a wide variety of academic and cultural events to town that rivals any other city in North Carolina. The students who attend UNC-CH contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to our local economy each year, and we are grateful for it. They also add to the town’s diverse population by representing all 50 states and over 100 different countries.

When Carolina students arrive every year in mid-August, it’s like a Carolina Blue ocean washing in at high tide, and it sweeps us locals up with the energy and enthusiasm they bring with them. Their presence awakens us all out of our summer slumber and readies us for another productive year. It is as if the entire town breathes along with the college’s academic calendar, inhaling when the students are here and exhaling when they leave for vacation. Even if you are not attending school or have children in school, the year feels like it begins not on January 1st, but when classes at the University begin in August, and the year ends at UNC’s Graduation Day on Mother’s Day. Locals know almost instinctively when students are off for Fall Break, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break, as the tide ebbs and our town suddenly feels empty once again.

The Famous Davie Poplar Awaiting the Arrival of UNC Students

What amazes me is how seamlessly this large population of UNC students is re-integrated into the town every school year. One might think it would be chaotic and disorderly, but since Chapel Hill was intentionally built around the University, we all know what is coming, and prepare for it well in advance. Each and every student has a place here, and we welcome their arrival every fall with open arms. Local businesses add more staff to accommodate the increase in customers, and offer impressive sales to attract students — which locals can take advantage of, as well. Grocery stores and bakeries start making their signature Tar Heel cupcakes and cookies in honor of the students’ return, and any store that sells anything Carolina will have it front and center in their window displays. Year-round Chapel Hill inhabitants intuitively avoid UNC’s campus during move-in weekend, to make room for all the parents dropping off their young scholars. And Carolina Blue once again becomes the predominant color of our town as shop owners hang “Welcome Back Students” banners and Tar Heel fans purchase new UNC wardrobes to don for the upcoming football and basketball seasons.

Cupcakes Announcing the Return of UNC Students

Additionally, the “Town and Gown divide” is bridged for this move-in weekend, as Chapel Hill residents are invited by the UNC Visitors’ Center to partake in UNC’s Week of Welcome (WOW) as Hometown Ambassadors. It is the mission of Missy Julian Fox, Chapel Hill native and the Director of the UNC Visitors’ Center, to make sure that incoming students feel especially welcomed as they arrive in town. Each year, Missy recruits myself and numerous other volunteer, long-time Chapel Hill residents and UNC alumni to be Hometown Ambassadors for the weekend, transforming ourselves into walking information kiosks along Franklin Street during move-in week. I am always honored to be included among them. I have been referred to as “The Ambassador to Chapel Hill” for years, so it feels great to be bestowed with that official title each year! Our Carolina Blue Hometown Ambassador aprons are weighted down by UNC campus maps, brochures, the Chapel Hill Visitor’s Guide and the Downtown Chapel Hill Guide to hand out to visitors, students and their families. We are also available to answer any questions arriving students and their families might have — mostly about parking and where “The Pit” is located. Michael Fox organizes the Ambassadors, and handles the running back and forth from Missy at the Visitors’ Center to Charles House, owner of University Florist, where all of our supplies are kept, making sure we all have ample materials to replenish our supply whenever we run out.

Several Hometown Ambassadors (left-right): Nancy Largent, Nancy Fox, Bob Fox, Megan Wooley, Rif Riddick, Paula Easton, Beth Isenhour, Tim Smith, Katherine Kopp, Cliff Butler, Carolyn Epstein, Stan Epstein, Missy Julian Fox, Kim Dawson, Paula Easton, Janet Evans, Sandy Turbeville, Lee Storrow

Missy Julian Fox is always thrilled at all of the positive feedback she receives about UNC’s Week of Welcome (WOW) from students and families. “The program is a huge success! I am so grateful for the support and enthusiasm from all corners of Town and Gown! Last year, we had a great group of townspeople volunteer to walk Franklin Street as Hometown Ambassadors! UNC Visitors’ Center reached out to partner with our UNC Office of New Students and Parent Programs to the Downtown Partnership to our Orange County Visitors’ Bureau to the Friends of Downtown to Franklin Street businesses and beyond! And, it was wonderful to have Lee Storrow from the Town Council join us, too! New students and families, returning students, newcomers, visitors, security guards, and business owners up and down the street expressed their gratitude as these Ambassadors manifested the generosity and friendliness that is a hallmark of this community. It was such a busy, busy weekend!”

Personally, I thoroughly enjoy sharing my knowledge of both my hometown and alma mater with UNC’s incoming class, returning students, and their families. I always meet parents who are UNC alumni and are now bringing their son or daughter to campus to attend UNC. The pride on those parents’ faces just beams, as their offspring set off to keep an academic family tradition alive.

Heather McIntosh (L) & Nancy Ingram Largent (R) standing on Connor Beach, outside Alexander Dorm, Freshman Year, circa 1988.

Seeing the excitement and nervousness hidden right below the surface of these incoming Freshmen, I am always reminded of when I moved to campus 26 years ago. Although Alexander Dorm was a mere 10 minute drive from my parents’ house, and I grew up playing on the campus of UNC, being a college student there was a surprisingly distinct experience. It was not the “bigger high school” I was expecting. UNC-CH functions remarkably and successfully as its own little world. Because of UNC’s requirement to live on campus for the first two years, and with limited access to a car, freshmen and sophomores rarely explore past the boundaries of Franklin and Rosemary Streets. This immerses new students, even long-time Chapel Hillians like me, completely into college life at UNC. I believe this is why UNC alumni are so bonded and fiercely loyal to their Carolina alma mater. Likewise, having a large majority of students housed on campus makes absorbing the sudden, huge population increase when the students arrive that much easier for the town of Chapel Hill.

And yes, the students have definitely arrived! Therefore, it might take five more minutes to get where you are going around town. You will probably have to wake up a little earlier on Sunday morning to find a parking space near your church. The line for a vanilla Coke at Sutton’s Drugstore is now definitely going to be out the door. Franklin Street is bustling once again, and that is exactly how it should be.

Welcome back, and have a great year everyone, students and townies alike!

Category: People

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