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UNC students build community, identity through on- and off-campus student organizations

Senior psychology major Chloe Spooner, a programming manager at WXYC, plays a record at the radio station on Tuesday, March 22, 2022.

Finding community in college was a lot different than Jannah Said, a junior majoring in quantitative biology, anticipated.

She went into her first year at UNC expecting to find a group of people with the same academic goals, personal interests and personality. Instead, she discovered that different groups fulfilled her in different ways.

“I thought I would be with people that match all of that but, in reality, everybody’s so different and even if you’re at such a big school, you’re not going to find people that perfectly align with every aspect of your life,” she said.

Said said that feeling heard, understood and seen was a fundamental part of her relationships in order to stay true to herself in college.

The things she values in her relationships are changing as she gets older, she said. Said has begun to seek out relationships that make her feel as safe and accepted as she does in her hometown and with childhood friends, she said.

Helena Walsh, a senior global studies and interdisciplinary studies major, found community at the University’s student-run radio station, WXYC.

Walsh, who began as a DJ at WXYC in the spring semester of her first year, is now the station manager.

She said she realized during her time as the station’s outreach manager that WXYC was an amazing vehicle for building community.

“You’re not just bounded by this interest in music," she said. "You also have these qualities and openness and expression that you share."

Walsh said that, as she went through college, she realized the importance of belonging to several different communities.

She met her lifelong best friends in the first week of her first year, but when students returned to campus after the COVID-19 pandemic, she said she also learned to seek out communities that pushed her in a fun and inclusive way and allowed her to try on different versions of herself in different spaces.

“I had these really strong friends and then, through WXYC, was able to discover a lot more parts of myself through a different kind of community,” she said.

Walsh said that she found acceptance, friends and a space to explore her queer identity at WXYC, while also learning how she functioned in different roles.

Said also learned that getting involved in various ‘micro-communities’ helped fulfill different aspects of her life and interests. 

She said she found community in clubs that aligned with her academic interests, such as the Bioethics Society of UNC, and cultural clubs that have provided a dose of her culture — like the Arab Student Organization and the Muslim Students Association. Said is also hoping to join the UNC-CH Club Tennis team in the future, she said.

“Just like friendships, no one club is going to fulfill everything about you, so it takes getting involved in different things to fulfill different parts of what you want in your life,” she said.

Said found information about clubs through Heel Life, UNC's club directory, and got in contact with some clubs by messaging them on social media.

Incoming students can find community before their first day of class through Carolina Kickoff, a three-day program that introduces students to other on-campus groups, leaders and each other.

Carolina Kickoff is a committee through the Campus Y, the hub for social justice at UNC, according to its website. 

Alice Knight, a senior at UNC and one of the two co-directors of Carolina Kickoff, said that the organization provides a safe and thoughtful community for incoming students, particularly those who may have difficulty finding it at a predominately white institution like UNC.

"As part of the Campus Y, our focus is to provide community for BIPOC students and for queer students who might otherwise have difficulty, for any reason," they said.

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Knight participated in Carolina Kickoff before their first year, but they also have a "broad spectrum" of connections and groups, both on and off campus.

Being involved with the Campus Y has helped Knight see that community is often multi-layered, they said.

"When coming to college, everybody is nervous and has some extent of fear about the change," they said. "And while it is difficult to trust oneself through such a large lifestyle change that you probably have never experienced before, it's important in your first year to trust yourself, take emotional risks and dare to maybe prove yourself wrong."

@eliza_benbow | @dailytarheel

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.