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New visitors center looks to connect campus to the world beyond UNC


The UNC Visitor Center on Franklin Street pictured on Friday, Feb. 21, 2020. The goal of the center is to be interactive and bridge the gap between student life and the Chapel Hill community.

Franklin Street has long served as an entryway to campus, but the University's presence on the downtown strip itself hasn't always been visible.

The new UNC Visitors Center, located at 134 E. Franklin St. by Carolina Coffee Shop, aims to change that and further integrate the University with the Town of Chapel Hill. The center also aims to reach a wider audience and connect with visitors through exhibits and tours. 

Unlike undergraduate admissions building Jackson Hall, the center's focus is not just on prospective students, but on general visitors to campus, alumni or anyone who'd like to learn more about the University. Tours held by the Visitors Center provide history and facts about UNC, as opposed to providing information about admissions. 

Examples include the “Black and Blue" tour, which provides an African-American history of the University, and the "Sense of Place" tour, which takes visitors to well-known campus landmarks like the Old Well. 

The Visitors Center is trying to function in a way that connects the University with the local community and students, Rhonda Beatty, director of the center, said. 

For example, she said a digital portrait gallery in the new center displays pictures and profiles of current UNC students, in the hope that visitors can connect with their stories. 

“Our hope is that when they come in here they will learn something about Carolina — that they will learn about the important work that students and faculty are doing in the community, across the nation and the world," Beatty said. 

Within the building's entryway, a display case showcases various partnerships with campus. It currently showcases BeAM, the network of on-campus makerspaces, with later displays planned for the Hanes Art Center, Wilson Library and possibly the athletics department.  

Beatty joked that maybe the space will display an eventual NCAA championship trophy. 

The center also incorporates new technology and other features — including a life-sized Rameses to take pictures with, a worldwide virtual map for guests to pinpoint where they’re from and a social media screen that displays both feeds of the University and Visitors Center across multiple platforms.  

Janina Millis, a senior environmental studies major, said she believes these additions will help the University engage with the most people and leave a lasting impression.  

 “I think this will definitely set us apart from other universities,” Millis said. 

Irene Velez Londono, a senior environmental studies major, has worked as a student assistant at the Visitors Center for three years, including during this transition period. She said she thinks the welcoming environment of the Visitors Center helps build UNC's connection with the world outside of campus.

“It’s a really good resource for anyone to use, because it really does give you a different perspective on the University and makes you realize that you’re part of something bigger and something that is really public and important," Velez Londono said. 

The Visitors Center officially opens to the public on March 6. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held the day before, including speeches from Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz, Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger and other community leaders. 

After March 6, all are welcome to take advantage of the advancements and learn more about the campus and its history. 

Carrie Turner, a sophomore business and public policy major, has led tours for elementary and middle school groups for the past three semesters. She said one instance in particular pointed to the impact of her work at the Visitors Center. 

Last semester, while giving a tour, Turner said a fourth grader saw a UNC student in the Pit who resembled her.

“That could be me! She looks like me!” the student called out.

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