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Sipping for success: UNC community reflects on Old Well tradition

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Abby Hall, a UNC first-year student studying biology, sips from the Old Well on the first day of classes on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023.

Although hundreds of students line up on the first day of classes to take a sip from the Old Well in hopes of achieving perfect grades, the origin of this tradition remains largely unknown. 

University archivist Nicholas Graham said the tradition has been a part of student life at UNC for the 20 years he’s been at the University. However, there aren’t many mentions of the ritual in historical archives, he said.

By asking University alumni, Graham discovered that the tradition evolved into what it is today throughout the 1990s.

“Alums from the 1970s didn't remember it much; alums in the 1980s were aware of it as a tradition, either before an important test or on the first day of exams,” he said. “And then alums from the 1990s were the ones who were beginning to say that this was a regular thing on the first day of classes.” 

Katherine Ku, an ambassador for the Order of the Bell Tower, recalled her parents — who also graduated from UNC — taking sips from the well on their first day of classes. The order is a student group that works to upkeep traditions at UNC. 

“I remember it was my first day of class, first semester of freshman year, and it was probably 90 degrees outside, but I have to do this tradition. I've heard so much about it, and I can't jinx myself,” she said.

Ku and other ambassadors of the order are currently working on ways to enhance the FDOC tradition, including shortening wait times, inviting speakers and featuring an appearance from Rameses. 

While it is not proven that a sip from the well will bring a perfect GPA, adjunct professor and historian Fred Naidensaid the legend is rooted in students taking part in the history of the University. 

“What you really want to drink in — along with a better grade average — is the traditions of the place,” Naiden said. “People come here because they're proud of the school, not just because it gets you a pretty good degree.”

While researching the history of the well, Naiden wrote in an article that, while it was once one well among many, the Old Well has now become a symbol of UNC. He also said the University has promoted the ritual of drinking from the well for luck — furthering the image of the well as the centerpiece of campus.

To keep the tradition alive, Naiden said University officials should participate.

“Whenever a new chancellor takes charge of the University, let the chancellor come drink from the well. Perhaps that'll make it easier for them to stay in the job longer,” he said.

Whether or not students decide to partake in the tradition on Monday, the excitement for the upcoming semester is palpable throughout campus, Ku said.

“It has been so fun to see all of the students come together and celebrate the first day of classes,” she said.

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