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'A sense of community that I didn’t find anywhere else': A guide to UNC's traditions

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Students line up to drink from the Old Well on the first day of classes, Aug. 18.

Since the University got its start in 1789, there have been a number of time-honored traditions that are a rite of passage before you turn your tassel at Commencement. 

From drinking at the Old Well on the first day of class to climbing to the top of the Bell Tower as a senior, current students, graduates and faculty reflect on some of their favorite moments at the University. 

2023 UNC graduate Cameron Fardy said she's not sure she believed in the Old Well’s legendary ability to grant students who sip from it on the first day of classes good grades. Still, she found herself lining up for hours at the iconic Chapel Hill landmark on the first day of class every semester, or as students refer to it, FDOC.

“I did it every semester, every year,” Fardy said. “I didn’t get a 4.0 but, you know, I still did it.” 

Fardy now works as an audience engagement reporter for Carolina Alumni. She said that participating in long-standing traditions such as sipping from the Old Well was very important to her during her time as an undergraduate.

“I dreamed of going to UNC since I could remember, so I wanted to do all of the things,” she said.

Though campus historians are unsure as to when the legend that the well gifted good grades to students began, hundreds of students wait in line on Cameron Avenue on FDOC every semester in hopes that it’s true. 

Bland Simpson, a professor of English and creative writing at the University and a member of the graduating class of 1970, said that while the tradition existed when he was a student, its popularity has grown considerably among the past few generations of students.

“You just didn’t see people lined up by the hundreds or dozens to do that,” Simpson said. “I’ve been amazed and appreciative that it’s so popular.”

He also said that the climbing of the Bell Tower, a tradition that allows seniors to walk to the top during Senior Week, was not a common practice when he was a student. However, the event has become increasingly popular in recent decades, and hundreds of students lined up to participate in the tradition in spring 2024.

Sophomore Cameron Flowers said that iconic campus traditions such as these influenced his decision to come to UNC and that he participated in several during his first year in Chapel Hill.

“Everyone at UNC when I toured seemed so passionate about these traditions and they portrayed a sense of community that I didn’t find anywhere else,” Flowers said. 

Participating in iconic campus traditions also allows students to learn more about the campus and visit landmarks they might not otherwise be familiar with, Simpson said. His personal favorite tradition is a walk through the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery that he co-led for several years in which he pointed out graves belonging to University and community leaders to students.

Simpson said that more formal traditions such as University Day, which is held annually on the day that the cornerstone of the University’s first building was laid, also serve as a way to honor UNC’s long history.

“That’s a pretty strong thing to honor, observe and gather together about,” Simpson said. 

Flowers said that at such a large university, traditions shared by students provide a way to create a smaller sense of community. 

“The 50-year reunion class, for example, you can talk to them and some of these traditions they’ve been doing since they were in school,” Fardy said. “And it’s just really, really cool to hear people who are way older than you who have done the things you’ve done.”

At an institution that has educated students for over 229 years and has well over 350,000 alumni, traditions serve as a unifier for Tar Heels.

“You’re all Carolina students, you’re all doing this,” Fardy said. “I just remember drinking from the Old Well on the first day of class was one of the first experiences where I was like, ‘Wow, I really am a Tar Heel.’”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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