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A new take on Carolina traditions

To kick off the new academic year, Carolina created virtual alternatives to several University traditions.

The Bell Tower lit up with blue lights.
The Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower is ceremoniously illuminated blue to represent a General Alumni Association tradition of relighting the bell tower prior to the start of the academic year on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. July 28, 2020.

The start of the Carolina experience for the University’s 5,300 new students has been far from conventional, but on Sunday, these students experienced one important tradition when University leaders officially welcomed the newest Tar Heels to Carolina during New Student Convocation.

The ceremony is traditionally held in Carmichael Arena, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was held virtually this year. This allowed all new Tar Heels — whether in Chapel Hill or studying from afar — to participate together.

“I want you to know that no matter where you are, you are a Tar Heel and a valued member of this community,” Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz told the students. “Every one of you has earned your place at Carolina. You’re here because you want to change something. You want to change your life, your community, the world. You’re here because you see things that are wrong, you see a world that can get better, and you know that you need some tools and preparation to make that change possible.”

The ceremony featured the traditional aspects of Convocation: University leaders gave speeches, the new class banner that will hang in the Great Hall in the Student Union was unveiled, and each student was encouraged to open a package containing a card with the Carolina Honor Code printed on it and a graduation tassel to remind them of their goal at Carolina.

“Many of you didn’t get your senior year graduation ceremony, but we will do everything we can to get you to Kenan Stadium for your Commencement in four years,” Guskiewicz said. “When you look back and remember this beginning, it will make your Commencement ceremony that much sweeter.”

Dr. William Fischer, an infectious disease expert and associate professor of medicine at the School of Medicine, delivered the Convocation keynote address. He urged the students to become engaged learners rather than passive students and encouraged them to be compassionate.

Fischer told the story of caring for a COVID-19 patient who, in the patient’s daily work, delivered food to North Carolina children in need. The patient, Fischer said, “is an important reminder that the true toll of this pandemic cannot be measured in cases or hospitalizations or deaths, but in fathers and husbands, wives and mothers, and lives interrupted.”

Fischer described how he and his colleagues worked together to help their patient, adapting and adjusting their plans as they learned how the patient responded to the interventions. There is no playbook for COVID-19, just as there aren’t playbooks for today’s other grand challenges, which is why being an engaged learner and correcting course when necessary is key to enabling others to navigate uncertainty, he said.

During this global pandemic, Fischer said, it would be understandable if people became focused on self-preservation, but considering others is the only way to end the outbreak and be safe. The same is true for other issues facing the country, such as racial and economic inequalities and devastation caused by climate change, he said.

“In these cases, it is quite likely that you will have a chance to step in and make a difference in someone’s life and when you do, you need to do it with compassion,” Fischer said.

Throughout the 40-minute ceremony, campus leaders encouraged students to take advantage of opportunities at Carolina by joining student groups, getting to know professors, conducting research and finding ways to serve in the community.

While the college experience feels different right now, those aspects of Carolina life remain as important as ever, said Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Amy Johnson.

“Getting involved in this way develops your campus network, supports your success in college, and ensures that you leave an imprint at UNC-Chapel Hill,” she said.

Besides Convocation, other back-to-school Carolina traditions went virtual this year, including Sunset Serenade, the annual concert featuring student a cappella groups, as well as the Order of the Bell Tower’s lighting of the Bell Tower and the first sip from the Old Well.

Typically on the first day of school, students line up to get a sip from the Old Well because legend holds that a sip that day will bring good luck in the form of good grades. The Old Well was closed this year for safety reasons, but students had the opportunity to take a virtual first sip and photo using an Instagram filter of the Old Well.

At Convocation, Student Body President Reeves Moseley encouraged Tar Heels to be resilient and make the most of the semester despite challenges.

“In times like these when the future is so uncertain, know that having hope will keep you going and that it will always burn the brightest in the darkest of places,” he said. “Whatever this new chapter may bring, we will get through this together.”