‘Scary’ and ‘surreal’: New UNC students experienced shooting on an unfamiliar campus

The air hung thick and humid in Chapel Hill on Tuesday, only an occasional leaf on a brick path or slight breeze offering signs that fall is on the way.

Memories of summer were still fresh for students at UNC-Chapel Hill on Monday — less than two full weeks into the first semester of the academic year — when a graduate student at the university allegedly shot and killed an associate professor in a laboratory building, sending the campus into a lockdown for three hours.

Some students, though, hadn’t simply returned to Chapel Hill from a three-month summer break. They had arrived to campus this month for the first time.

These students, mostly first-year students and some international students on exchange, huddled in unfamiliar dorm rooms, bathrooms and dining halls, barricading themselves and hiding from the then-unclear danger. They froze upon hearing of the threat — from friends’ texts, the concerned faculty around them or through university alert messages — trying to get their bearings in a new place and work through their confusion.

Alert messages sent by the university repeatedly urged people to shelter in place, but gave little specific information about the situation that was unfolding — only an initial warning of an “Armed, dangerous person on or near campus,” and updates that a suspect was “at large.”

Ruth Uzochukwu, a first-year student from Raleigh, was walking out of her room in a residence hall to head to class when she learned of the threat. She turned around, went back into her room, and hid alone for the duration of the lockdown.

“It was scary to be in there alone,” she said. “I think that’s what got me. We’ve had drills, we had situations in high school, but at least I was with other people in my classroom. But handling it alone was what really made it even scarier.”

‘Surreal experience’ for international student

Uzochukwu was one of dozens of students on campus Tuesday who came to pet local dogs from Hugs and Pups, an organization that formed in the wake of a string of student deaths at UNC in 2021.

Students filtered in and out of the central part of the university’s campus, on the main quad and at The Pit, throughout the day. Many students congregated in groups under the mostly overcast sky, discussing their experiences of the previous day as they waited to see one of about eight dogs on campus with Hugs and Pups, or grab a free slice of pizza from a volunteer stationed outside of the Undergraduate Library.

Alberto Laveron, an international student from Spain who moved to campus less than two weeks ago, sheltered in the FedEx Global Education Center Monday with other students and staff. Growing up in Europe, he said, he did not receive training for active shooter situations, and he was grateful for the guidance of those he sheltered with.

“I don’t know what I would have done” without their help, he said.

Sheltered together, the small group monitored alert messages from the university. Laveron originally had set those messages to go to his European phone number, but was eventually able to get them under his American number, he said.

After the university issued an “all clear” message around 4:15 p.m., Laveron left the building and walked to a campus dining hall. Along the way, he saw a large police presence still on campus, many with guns. He picked up a plate of brownies and cookies, then returned to his dorm room on campus to eat.

“It was just surreal, to be honest with you,” he told The N&O. “I never thought I would experience something like this.”

First-years shelter in dining hall

Katie Fiore and Lucas Moore, both first-year students from Asheville and Cary, respectively, were upstairs in Lenoir dining hall, in the center of campus and not far from Caudill Labs, on Monday afternoon when dining employees began ushering people away from windows and locking the doors.

The pair listened to music — David Bowie and James Taylor, Fiore said — to keep calm, as dining employees continued to serve food and reassure students of their safety. Both told The News & Observer they had received training for active shooter situations in previous levels of schooling, but had not been prepared to experience such an event at UNC, especially so early into their time as students there.

“I felt like I had a plan back then for what I was going to do, and I did not expect it to happen here,” Moore said. “The thought did not occur to me, during my first two weeks here, that this was going to happen.”

Muriel Folk, a first-year student from Raleigh, was on the bottom floor of the dining hall building, not yet having swiped her student ID card to get a meal. When a friend approached her to tell her that an active shooter was on campus, the group moved away from nearby windows and gathered together to pray.

Though she now knows she was in close proximity to the Caudill building, Folk said she was unaware of that at the time because of how new she is to the large campus.

Folk said she participated in lockdown drills in elementary school, but had not experienced one at the private school she began attending in seventh grade. She said she had not received training for such situations at UNC.

“I think because it was so early in the school year, no one really talked about, you know, what to do in a school shooting here,” she said.

Folk said she wants to channel her experience Monday into action on gun violence, but said it’s daunting to know where to start as a young student on campus wanting to know how to address such a large issue.

“The people I was with yesterday — not just those but, you know, 30,000 people on campus — were not knowing if they were going to survive the day,” Folk said. “And I don’t think that’s a reality that anyone should have to face.”

Folk said Monday was a “life-changing event” for her, and though her professors have been supportive and caring, she wonders how she will continue to process it all as the semester continues. One of the final alerts from the university on Monday told people to “resume normal activities,” and classes will resume Thursday after a two-day pause.

“How do I go about a normal day after this?” Folk said.

The academic year will march on. But the memory of Monday will stay with them.