For the thousands of non-Chapel Hill UNC students, going to college can feel like some kind of vacation. But in what was already an unprecedented semester, some students lived in hotels rather than traditional dormitories like Hinton James and Granville Towers.
For the past two semesters, due to the sudden campus closure last August amid rising COVID-19 cases, more than 70 UNC students have lived at Graduate Chapel Hill, a hotel on Franklin Street that has rapidly changed its business model to meet the needs of students meet.
Lauren Langley, a freshman student, started her fall semester last year at Granville Towers a COVID-19 cluster in their building forced her to return to Charlotte to self-isolate. Before she could even finish her quarantine window, however, the university was up personal courses canceled and promptly notified all students on campus that they would be asked to leave, unless extenuating circumstances existed.
Despite a stable living situation at home with internet and a private room, the idea of staying at home for the semester quickly became an emergency for Langley and her family.
“I was sitting there doing classwork and it was so hard to focus on anything while my little brother was doing online school, had a dog at home and my dad was working from home,” Langley said. “It was just a lot and our Wi-Fi was having problems.”
Langley’s family decided to look into off-campus housing options and were surprised to find a listing for a hotel amid numerous Facebook posts about subleases and open apartments.
For Langley, the graduate filled out many of the items she was looking for in the first year of life. Although the hotel is traditionally tailored to alumni and parents, it also offers a residential environment.
“I wanted to do something that was a little less permanent, so the hotel was a great middle ground for me,” said Langley.
If Langley seemed to have appeared to the graduate’s student housing options overnight, it’s likely because they essentially did.
Wes Rowe, the graduate’s general manager, said ahead of the fall semester the hotel hadn’t planned on offering student accommodation even if business had declined due to the pandemic. That changed on August 17th.
“When the university decided to send everyone home, we saw this massive outcry for off-campus housing and decided to throw our names in the hat,” Rowe said.
In a matter of weeks, the graduate had converted 55 of his 70 suites into student dormitories, with more than 70 students signing. This semester, the number of rental contracts has only fallen to 46 despite the reopening of many dormitories.
Offering both semester stays and monthly payment options, the graduate quickly became a popular choice for those who still wish to stay at Chapel Hill, especially first graders who had never lived on campus for more than a week.
Anne Houston Huffman, a freshman journalism student who had also lived in Granville before the campus closed, said her stay at the hotel kept her first class experience feeling somewhat normal.
“It’s very similar in all honesty because I can still get out and do things I want to do like go for a walk, go to an exercise class, take a walk on campus and do the same things that I would normally do” said Huffman.
Students who reside at the graduate say they can still experience the social aspect of life on campus. Huffman lives down the hall from several of her old flatmates in Granville, and Langley is in a private room with a connecting door to her old flatmate.
Although the graduate has COVID-19 safety standards, such as letting a checked-in visitor into a room at a specific time and restricting use of spaces like the lobby and fitness center, Langley said the hotel has also made an effort to slowly establish a community between build them up student residents. This included that “Halloween surprises” were left on the residents’ doors in October and a socially distant event was held for some residents in the last week of classes.
“You’ve definitely found a happy medium for us to be COVID safe, but also to take care of your sanity and not be isolated,” Langley said.
Rowe said while some COVID-19 cases occurred with the Graduate in early September, he believes the hotel has had very few problems since then and is committed to keeping student living conditions clean, from changing and cleaning sheets once a week up to the offer of bi-weekly cleaning and weekly deep cleaning for an additional charge.
Langley said she was doubtful that she would want to live with the graduate, but her experience over the past two semesters with the hotel’s staff and social environment made it one of the best decisions she made at UNC.
“When I walk through the doors, the staff always know my name,” Langley said. “The way I see it, I always have a home here, no matter where I want to live for the next three years.”