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'Hey Ya!' and low-rise jeans: A look back at UNC in the early 2000s

2000s campus culture.jpeg
On weekend nights during their upperclassman years, UNC students in the 2000s would gather on Franklin Street, take the P2P, sing karaoke at He's Not Here and make late-night runs to Gumby's Pizza. At parties, it was common to hear music from the band Journey or older songs like "Jessie's Girl." Photo courtesy of Pinar Gurel.

In the final months of 1999, Matt McCullough, class of 2000, watched students file into the campus computer labs where he worked. But some of these students weren’t there to use the Macs and PCs, he said. Instead, they were asking whether the approaching new millennium would wreak havoc on their personal devices.

“There was a lot of people freaked out about Y2K,” McCullough said.

Mala Desai celebrated her 22nd birthday on New Year’s Eve, 1999. She said UNC students viewed the 2000s as an exciting unknown.

The dot-com bubble hit its peak less than three months later.

‘The internet killed the video star’

The tech revolution defined student life at UNC during the first decade of the 2000s. New gadgets, new software and new conveniences flooded markets — and college students were always the first to test them out, McCullough said.

McCullough recalls hearing music in a peer’s room and asking her if he could look at the CD. She replied that the music was playing on her computer.

“And I just remember being blown away,” he said. “Like, ‘What do you mean? How is it playing on your computer?’ And then she showed me Napster.”

Created in 1999, Napster was a file-sharing software that allowed users to upload and download music for free. It was effectively an early version of Apple Music and Spotify, McCullough said.

By the time Elizabeth Watson, class of 2009, arrived at orientation in 2005, the tech revolution had advanced to the point where cellphones were becoming common fixtures. But she wasn’t familiar with the new technological phenomenon that people at orientation were discussing.

“People were talking about Facebook, and I was like, ‘What's Facebook?’” Watson said. “And they were like, ‘Oh, you haven't had Facebook? As soon as you get your UNC email, you can log on and be a part of it.’”

Former Senior Class Co-President Pinar Gurel, class of 2009, said Facebook was only open to students at certain colleges at the time, and UNC was one of the campuses approved. Students could add friends and write on each other’s walls on the new digital platform.

Eventually, Facebook began supporting pictures, although cellphones weren’t equipped with cameras. Watson said when students would go out, they would carry around small, silver Canon digital cameras.

“The best thing was the next morning,” Watson said. “I roomed with four girls — we would all climb in bed with each other, meet in the living room and look through all of the pictures together. And you were always so nervous to wake up and see who had posted pictures on Facebook from the day before, the night before.”

Party in the USA   

On weekend nights during their upperclassman years, Gurel said, she and her friends would gather on Franklin Street. Goodfellows was one of her favorite bars.

Watson said students took the P2P bus to navigate the nightlife, much like they do today. She recalled the karaoke at He’s Not Here and late-night runs to Gumby’s Pizza.

Watson said it was common for parties to play older music like Journey or “Jessie’s Girl.” She also recalls hearing T.I.’s “Whatever You Like.” Outkast was big, too, she said.  

“We used to throw parties where we promised to play ‘Hey Ya!’ as every seventh song because it was such a popular song,” said former Student Body President Matt Calabria, class of 2005.

Desai said her clubbing outfits generally doubled as her everyday outfits. Spaghetti strap tank tops and low-rise jeans were staples. Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap and J.Crew were the fashion destinations.

Standard attire for fraternity parties was denim skirts, tube tops or dresses, Watson said. Jack Rogers sandals, Wallabees and cowgirl boots were all the rage during her time at UNC, she said.

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A lot of women had side bangs, Gurel said, and the haircuts emulated those of Jennifer Aniston in “Friends.” 

For spring breaks, McCullough said, he was able to travel internationally. 

“It was so easy to travel, and you just hopped on a plane and went,” he said. “Pre-9/11, it was a whole different story."

Weathering hardships

Calabria was weeks into his first year at UNC when tragedy struck, rocking the campus as it did everywhere in the country.  

“Everyone remembers where they were when they learned about what happened on Sept. 11, 2001,” Calabria said. “For most of us, we were in our dorm rooms and came out and either got a call from our parents or heard about it somehow and flipped on our TVs and watched it.”

Calabria said the tragedy was formative for students. He said he recalls a massive gathering on Polk Place. It was the fullest he’d ever seen the lawn, he said.

“It seemed like every student on campus was there, just being together and crying together, and just communicating all our thoughts and feelings,” he said. “And then in the succeeding days and weeks, we participated in all sorts of charitable efforts and fundraising efforts.”

Calabria’s class were sophomores when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Students expressed their concern through activism, he said, with some traveling to Washington, D.C. to engage in protests.

Watson was an upperclassman during the Great Recession and the H1N1 pandemic, but she doesn’t recall either event directly affecting her time at UNC.

“I hate to say it, but I feel like sometimes you just think in college that you are just immune to everything and nothing’s going to happen,” she said. “You’re just kind of in your bubble in Chapel Hill.”

Watson said it was the 2008 death of Student Body President Eve Carson that made her realize this bubble didn’t exist.

Gurel said Carson was a role model for her. The week before her death, Carson met with Gurel to offer advice about running for student government. Gurel described her as incredibly accomplished, well-rounded, nice and genuine.

“A lot of my friends also knew her and were very close to her,” she said. “It was an incredible injustice. It's not fair for somebody with so much promise and life ahead of them to have this happen to them.”

To honor her legacy, Gurel’s class launched the Eve Carson Scholarship, which is awarded annually.

‘A time of growth’

Although her class experienced numerous hardships, Gurel said her time at UNC was bookended by joyous occasions. The men’s basketball team won NCAA championship titles in 2005 and 2009 — shortly after the class of 2009 received their acceptance letters and just before the class graduated.

Calabria said he viewed his time at UNC as a "golden age."

“In a lot of ways, it was a very positive period on campus,” he said. “It was a time of growth, of good communication and good work between students and the administration. We worked very collaboratively and constructively on any number of things.”

While Calabria was a student, he said, then-Chancellor James Moeser rolled out the Carolina Covenant program.

“We all bought into the idea that UNC was one of the few entities that was academically excellent, but also strongly focused on public service and on the good of the community,” he said. “And there still aren't that many institutions in the country that meet those two criteria in the way that UNC has and does.”