The legend of the first sip

Tradition says that a sip from the Old Well brings good luck, but where did the legend come from? University Archivist Nicholas Graham reveals the origins of the “first sip” and its impact on campus today.

Legend has it that a sip from the Old Well on the first day of classes brings students good luck — even a perfect GPA. Thousands of Carolina students line up at the well every year to test the theory for themselves.

But the legend’s origin has been a bit of a mystery.

To find out when the tradition started, University archivist Nicholas Graham turned to a trusted tool: Facebook. He reached out to UNC-Chapel Hill alumni who graduated in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s to learn the whole story.

“Alums from the ’70s said that they didn’t remember it at all,” he said. “Alums from the ’80s talked about the idea that drinking out of the Old Well was good luck, so sometimes they would do it before a big exam. And it’s really in the 1990s that this idea emerged that it was good luck to do it on the first day of class.”

Taylor Franklin, an environmental health sciences major from Morganton, North Carolina, has her own theory about the well’s powers and has put it to the test every semester.

“I’m here every morning before my first class on the first day of classes,” said Taylor, who started her senior year in line at the Old Well this morning. “I’ve found that if you go right before classes start, you’re definitely going to get on the Dean’s List at least!”

Although the Old Well itself traces its origins to the University’s founding in the 1790s, Graham said the first sip tradition has become a big deal only over the past several years. While students in the ’80s and ’90s sipped from the well for a dose of good luck for an exam, today’s Tar Heels hope for a 4.0 GPA.

“The amount of good luck and good fortune you get from the Old Well seems to have grown immensely in student minds over the years, so it will be interesting to see how the legend grows and what actually happens when you take a sip from the Old Well on the first day,” Graham said.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the iconic landmark’s ability to inspire a sense of community.

“It’s something we can all do together on the first day of class to bring us together as Tar Heels,” said Franklin, whose first-day-of-school photos have stretched from kindergarten to today’s first sip photo at the Old Well.

Hear more about the tradition on Carolina’s storytelling podcast.

Read a transcript of this episode here.