SafeWalkers make nights more secure

The student-run organization helps Tar Heels get where they need to go safely during late hours.

A woman and two men with bikes walking on a brick pathway on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill at night.
Sarah Peralta, seen walking back to her dorm with Nick Chappell (center) and Ian Bracken (right), said she feels comfortable using SafeWalk. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Late evening at Davis Library during finals week has a daytime feel to it. Students preoccupied with looming paper deadlines and upcoming exams fill the building.

Four more enter just before 10 p.m., ready to work — in a different way.

Wearing matching blue jackets and equipped with walkie talkies, they roll over chairs from nearby desks and set up shop in the lobby near the exit doors, homebase until 2 a.m.

“Would you like a SafeWalk?” they take turns asking fellow students exiting Davis and entering the dark, 36-degree night.

After several nos, Sarah Peralta, a junior who spent the evening working on a paper for a film class, says yes.

Joining Peralta on the walk back to her residence hall are program manager Nick Chappell, a second-year graduate student at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, and sophomore Ian Bracken. The group makes conversation about Peralta’s finals week and the break ahead before exchanging goodbyes.

A SafeWalk is a lot like it sounds: a shared walk for Carolina students, postdocs, faculty or staff (anyone with a PID) who want safe foot transportation late at night. Two student employees trained by UNC Police go with each walker to the requested destination, on campus or off (within geographic reason). While most walks start at Davis, SafeWalkers, all with bikes, can meet requestees around campus. SafeWalks can also be scheduled online or by phone.

“I think a lot of what we do isn’t necessarily all the physical safety side of things,” Chappell says. “A lot of what we do is the emotional security – being there for people when they need someone to talk to.”

SafeWalks are available 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Sunday through Thursday during the semester. There’s a special schedule during finals, which, unsurprisingly, is the program’s busy season. This school year, SafeWalk averages seven walks per night, though that number can jump into the 20s during finals. The program is on track to hit 1,500 walks by the end of the spring semester, which would easily eclipse past-year totals in the 1,000-1,100 range, Chappell says.

Started in 2010, SafeWalk has gone through multiple organizational changes and moved to UNC Police in 2022.

One constant, regardless of where the program is housed, has been the commitment from students to provide safety for fellow students and members of the Carolina community.

Peralta, a transfer student, says she was a bit surprised when she found out SafeWalk existed. She told her parents about it, which made them feel better about her late nights at the library. She feels comfortable when she uses SafeWalk.

“These guys are always good conversationalists, so I always feel safe walking back with them,” she said. “It’s not uncomfortable or complete silence walking back.”

Two men wearing blue jackets walking a woman across a street at night on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

Keira Berkaw (right), seen talking with Kristopher Castillo (left) and Logan Sims (center), used SafeWalk multiple times during the fall semester. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

For SafeWalkers — there are 13 of them now, Chappell says, their highest staffing level to date — a job that might seem undesirable to some is a good gig for a couple of reasons. In addition to playing a role in keeping campus safe, a self-described night owl like Logan Sims can be productive during the evening, get steps in and meet new people.

“I’m always someone who wants to start conversations,” said Sims, a sophomore, who traded stories about first-year courses with Keira Berkaw and gave her insight on his entrepreneurship minor.

Five years ago, Chappell first heard about SafeWalk at FallFest. He was about to leave when he heard, “Who wants to get paid to walk?”

For SafeWalkers and the people they protect, that’s a good deal.