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UNC's outdoor spaces provide opportunities for community, connection

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A small stream runs through Coker Arboretum on June 22, 2023.

Kenny Jones first spoke to his wife in Coker Arboretum, one of UNC's green spaces. Though he noticed her in their shared astronomy course, he said he never got the chance to talk to her after class.

“So then one day I was coming back from an exam and I saw her in there,” Jones, now a microforms and government docs manager at UNC Libraries, said. “And she actually worked for the ground crew as a work-study student in the arboretum, so I went up and talked to her and the rest is history.”

At UNC, various outdoor spaces from Coker Arboretum to the Outdoor Education Center provide places to rest or connect with others in the UNC community.

Coker Arboretum

Students can walk along the mostly flat brick or grit paths of Coker Arboretum from dawn to dusk throughout the year.

The arboretum is located on the corner of East Cameron Avenue and Raleigh Street.

Named for the University's first botany professor, William Chambers Coker, the arboretum has a variety of plants, some native to North Carolina and others to East Asia.

Students can take a tour of the five-acre arboretum led by a guide for $6. Availability and tickets can be found on the North Carolina Botanical Garden's website.

Coker Pinetum

Along the eastern edge of Manning Drive, students can visit the 25-acre nature preserve of Coker Pinetum, which mainly features a collection of pines and conifers.

Students can walk through the pinetum on two different trails.

The Campus to Garden Trail, which is one mile, can take students from UNC's South Campus to the North Carolina Botanical Garden.

The botanical garden is a conservation garden that works to preserve plant diversity and support sustainable interactions between people and nature.

The Creekside Crossings Trail, which is three-quarters of a mile, has more challenging terrain that follows the Meeting of the Waters Creek.

Outdoor Education Center

The 67-acre Outdoor Education Center on Country Club Road offers various recreational opportunities and programming, from an 18-hole disc golf course to eight tennis courts and three sand volleyball courts.

While you have to bring your own equipment, use of the facility is mostly free and available without reservations, according to David Rogers, senior assistant director of Carolina Adventures.

Carolina Adventures, which provides outdoor expedition opportunities for students, does require a fee and prior reservation, in part because they’re led by paid student instructors, he said.

"It's helped me grow as an outdoors person and as a leader in general because it's kind of a unique opportunity for someone my age to be making like really big, impactful decisions about what a group is doing and kind of having that responsibility," James Brown, a student leader at Carolina Adventures, said. "I think, it’s really helped me grow a lot."

Some of the expeditions offered by Carolina Adventures include outdoor climbing.

For Russell Hobart, assistant director of the climbing programs, the climbing community at UNC fosters connections and empathy between students because climbing forces you to be vulnerable with others and trust them with your safety, he said.  

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Hobart said having these connections can be important for incoming first-years who often have a new level of freedom and responsibility to make their own decisions.

“It's hard to have that level of freedom and it's hard to grow from there because you don't want to disappoint your parents, you don't want to disappoint your family community,” he said. “So if you have that level of connection and friendships, I think it allows you to become a fuller version of yourself than you could otherwise.”

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