What It Means to Be a Tar Heel

(Editor’s note: This article is one in an occasional series called “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” in which people—many of them still students—share lessons they learned from their college experience.)

One of the first things I remember about moving into UNC-Chapel Hill for my freshman year was the number of stereotypes thrown at me. I heard that only these types of people join this club, only these types of girls and guys join this sorority or fraternity, the only way to make the “right” friends is to go out and drink every weekend, only certain people live on this side of campus, and so on.  

Quite frankly, I was baffled that this closed-mindedness had followed me from high school to one of the best universities in the country, long praised for the diversity on its campus. Before I arrived at Chapel Hill people were always talking about how different it was going to be from high school; I was going to meet people from all walks of life; there would be hundreds of organizations to join; there would be a million things to do on weekends and plenty of ways to make new friends. However, it seemed as though too many people at Carolina were content to make their college experience exactly like their high school experience, confining it to a set group of people, places, and ideas.  

In high school I had multiple opportunities to travel abroad, mostly to Germany and Austria and also a mission trip in Peru. I realized that there is a much bigger world than the one that existed between the three interstate exits connecting my school, my house, and my friends. I came to Chapel Hill in the hope of finding others who wanted to continue growing, maturing, and learning more about the society around us. I was disappointed to find that some of the first things I heard on campus varied little from the ignorant worldview that I’d often heard in high school, like most students only wanted to party and get drunk every night.  Frankly, I wanted a little  more from my university experience.

Luckily, being the stubborn person I am, I did not let this narrow-mindedness constrict me. I already had something of a career path planned out. For years I have known that I want to pursue a career in international business that will allow me to explore my passion for business as well as my love of learning new languages, traveling, and politics. Although I didn’t exactly know where all of that would take me, I knew that Chapel Hill offered some challenging programs that would push me in the right direction. 

I was also fortunate enough to have older friends on campus who helped me choose what clubs would fit best with my interests, and what would expand my horizons and help me meet different people—as well as classes that they found interesting and beneficial. 

One of the first clubs I joined was Carolina Fever. This organization, which works closely with the athletic department, uses prizes to encourage students to attend some of the sporting events that don’t attract large crowds. You can enjoy viewing parties, tailgates, and prizes, but most of all it’s a great way to meet new people who love to cheer on our fellow Tar Heels. (If you are at Carolina and you get nothing else out of this essay, take this advice: join Carolina Fever; it was the most fun I’ve had in college so far).

If I had followed the advice of most of my friends from high school, I would never have joined—they disparage sports and concentrate on the Greek life. I had also heard that I shouldn’t live on South campus, which is about fifteen-minute walk to main campus and around twenty-five minutes to Franklin Street, because it was so far from the rest of campus and “weird” people generally live there.  However, South campus helped me meet people from not only across the country but around the world. Some of my fondest memories of freshman year were spent with international exchange students who became some of my best friends and whom I plan to keep in contact with now that they’ve returned to their home countries.

Because I didn’t join a sorority the first semester, I participated in activities that weren’t available to those who spent so much time with rush and pledging. I had time to volunteer for Orange County Special Olympics as a swim coach. I started writing for the Carolina Review, the conservative newspaper on Carolina’s campus, straying far from the norm on a public university campus. I am now an associate editor of the Carolina Review and the editor of its online counterpart, Carolina Review Daily. None of this would have been possible if I hadn’t branched out and joined organizations that were a little outside my comfort zone because I didn’t know anyone in them. 

As for my classes, I came to UNC thinking pretty much what everyone does: “Why do I need to take courses that have nothing to do with my major?” While a lot of people hate the general education requirements, I quickly discovered what a blessing they really are. My advice is, take a couple of classes that sound interesting, and take a couple of classes that don’t appeal to you. If within the first few days they seem awful, drop them and find new ones, but never underestimate the amount of fun or the amount you can learn.

Right now I’m a major in public policy with a minor in philosophy, political science, and economics (a joint program with Duke University), and by the spring of 2014, I hope to be accepted to the Kenan-Flagler Business School as a business major as well. But some of my favorite courses so far have nothing to do with any of those programs, such as Great Musical Works and History of the World after 1945.

As clichéd as it sounds, follow the path less traveled or, even better, do what you love to do even if the majority of people you know are doing something completely different. One of my favorite things about Carolina is that it is an institution where upper class and lower class, business majors and women’s studies majors, Christians and Hindus, and local and international students all come together to become Tar Heels.