For the thousands of UNC students who are not from Chapel Hill, going away to college can feel like a sort of vacation. But in an already unprecedented semester, instead of staying in traditional dorms like Hinton James and Granville Towers, some students found themselves living in a hotel.
For the past two semesters, as a result of the sudden closure of campus last August amid rising COVID-19 cases, more than 70 UNC students have been living at the Graduate Chapel Hill, a hotel on Franklin Street that has rapidly shifted its business model to accommodate student living needs.
Lauren Langley, a first-year student, began her fall semester last year living at Granville Towers before a COVID-19 cluster in her building forced her to return home to Charlotte to self-isolate. Before she could even complete her quarantine window, however, the University canceled in-person classes and promptly informed all on-campus students that they would be asked to leave unless they had extenuating circumstances.
Despite having a stable at-home living situation, with internet and her own room, the idea of staying home for the semester quickly became distressing for Langley and her family.
“I was sitting in there doing classwork, and it was just so hard to focus on something with my little brother doing online school, having a dog at home and my dad working from home,” Langley said. “It was just a lot, and our Wi-Fi was struggling.”
Langley’s family decided to look into off-campus housing options and was surprised to find, amid countless Facebook posts of subleases and apartment vacancies, a listing for a hotel.
To Langley, the Graduate filled in many of the elements she was looking for in a first-year living experience. Though the hotel is traditionally tailored to visiting alumni and parents, it also offered a dorm-like environment.
“I wanted to do something that was a little less permanent, so the hotel was a great middle ground for me,” Langley said.
If the Graduate’s student housing options seemed to Langley to have appeared overnight, it’s likely because they essentially did.
Wes Rowe, general manager of the Graduate, said prior to the fall semester, the hotel had not planned on offering student housing accommodations, even with decreased business due to the pandemic. That all changed on Aug. 17.
“When the University decided to send everybody home, we saw this massive outcry for housing off campus, and we decided to throw our name in the hat,” Rowe said.
Within a few weeks, the Graduate had transformed 55 of its 70 suites into student housing, with more than 70 students signed. This semester, even with many dorms reopened, the number of leases has only decreased to 46.
Offering both full-semester stays and month-to-month payment options, the Graduate quickly became a popular choice to those still wishing to stay in Chapel Hill, especially for first-years who had never experienced more than a week of on-campus living.
Anne Houston Huffman, a first-year journalism student staying at the Graduate who had also been living in Granville prior to the campus’s closure, said being at the hotel has allowed her to retain some sense of normalcy in her first-year experience.
“It’s honestly very similar, because I can still get out and do things that I want to do, like go for walks, go to an exercise class, walk campus and do the same types of things I would do normally,” Huffman said.
Students living at the Graduate say they can still experience the social aspect of living on campus. Huffman lives down the hall from several of her old Granville floormates, and Langley is in a private room with a connecting door to her old suitemate.
Though the Graduate has COVID-19 safety standards, like allowing one checked-in visitor in a room at a time and maintaining limited use of spaces like the lobby and fitness center, Langley said the hotel has also engaged in efforts to slowly build community amongst student residents. This has included leaving “Halloween surprises” at residents’ doors in October and hosting a socially distanced event for a few residents at a time during the last week of classes.
“They’ve definitely found a happy medium for us, of being COVID-safe, but also looking out for your mental health as well and not being isolated,” Langley said.
Rowe said while some COVID-19 cases developed at the Graduate early in September, he believes the hotel has since had very little issues and works to ensure the students’ living situations remain clean, from swapping and cleaning linens once a week to offering biweekly cleanings and weekly deep-cleanings at an extra cost.
Langley said she was doubtful going into living at the Graduate, but her experiences the past two semesters with the staff and social environment at the hotel have made it one of the best decisions she’s made at UNC.
“When I walk through the doors, the staff always know my name,” Langley said. “The way I look at it, no matter where I choose to live for the next three years, I always have a home here.”