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After a traumatic lockdown, UNC Chapel Hill community copes with hugs and furry friends

Cathy Emrick holds a ‘Hugs and Pups’ sign behind Rosie. To the right of her is Rosie’s owner, Catherine Kirkpatrick. She and other moms on campus gave students hugs, snacks and a listening ear on Tuesday, Aug. 29 after the UNC Chapel Hill shooting.
Brianna Atkinson
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WUNC
Cathy Emrick holds a ‘Hugs and Pups’ sign behind Rosie. To the right of her is Rosie’s owner, Catherine Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick and other mothers on campus gave students hugs, snacks and a listening ear on Tuesday, Aug. 29 after the UNC Chapel Hill shooting.

The UNC-Chapel Hill campus was quiet Tuesday afternoon. The dining hall, normally bustling with students during a sunny afternoon, was only half full. A grassy area known as the Quad, where students study and hang out, only had a few people sitting by themselves.

And the center of campus, known as The Pit, was empty.

UNC Chapel Hill's "The Pit"
Brianna Atkinson
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WUNC
The Pit, also known as the center of at UNC Chapel Hill's campus, after 1p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023. Usually, the space would be filled with students, but in the aftermath of Monday's campus lockdown it sits empty.

It’s been just one day since police spent hours apprehending an armed shooter on campus. The UNC Police Department charged graduate student Tailei Qi with first-degree murder for the fatal shooting of his academic adviser, Zijie Yan, in Caudill Labs.

In some pockets of campus, students, parents and other community members leaned on each other to cope and process the traumatic events.

One of these groups set up shop in front of Rams Head Recreation Center. Moms held signs reading "Hugs and Pups" and called out to students walking by. Soon, a small circle formed around a small dog named Rosie.

Cathy Emrick is the founder of HAPPEE or the Hugs And Pups Posse - Encouraging and Empowering! She also works at UNC-Chapel Hill and is the parent of a student.

Emrick said when the alert originally went out, her daughter was outside on the Quad with her friends. By the time they made it to a building, the doors were already locked.

“They ran from building to building to building and all of them had locked doors,” she said. “They couldn’t get in.”

Finally, someone let them into the South Building, home to the Chancellor’s office. Emrick’s daughter hid in the basement for the next three hours.

“We’re teaching them how to hide. If they can’t hide, run. And if they can’t run, how to fight a person with a gun,” Emrick said. “That’s just sick. I have big feelings about this and I funnel them into HAPPEE, because that’s what we can do. I can’t fix society, but I can hug some necks and I can bring my dog.”

Two female UNC-Chapel Hill students sitting together on campus on Aug. 29, 2023 following the 2023 UNC Chapel Hill shooting.
Brianna Atkinson
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WUNC
Cathy Emrick holds a ‘Hugs and Pups’ sign behind Rosie. To the right of her is Rosie’s owner, Catherine Kirkpatrick. The group of mothers on campus gave students hugs, snacks and a listening ear on Tuesday, Aug. 29 after the UNC Chapel Hill shooting.

Near the center of campus, another HAPPEE dog named Molly received pets from sophomores Kaelyn Brock and Brookelynn Matthews, who are also roommates.

Matthews said it was her first time being back on campus since yesterday. She hid in Chapman Hall, an academic building that’s only a six-minute walk away from Caudill Labs.

“I was really scared in that moment,” Matthews said. “This is my first time since going back to my room that I’ve been out. I’m still nervous. I still have shakes sometimes.”

Brock said it felt like her legs were going numb just walking down campus. The two have both been leaning on each other and their suitemates to process the situation.

The women spent the night huddled in their living room trading stories about what their area of campus looked like during the lockdown.

“We were all scared still, but it was so much better having each other,” Brock said.

Getting a chance to pet Molly was the first time they took their mind off the situation.

“I almost started crying,” Brock said. “It was just like a huge relief. She leaned on me and I don’t know, she’s literally only here to comfort us and make us happy.”

Molly’s owner is Meg Zomorodi, a professor who teaches at UNC’s School of Nursing. She had just left campus when it went into lockdown yesterday. She said as a faculty member, it’s hard losing a colleague.

“It’s hard to imagine that someone went to work like I do everyday and then didn’t come home to their family,” she said. “And then these wonderful students that I’m trying to support, this has been their whole life. A lot of situations where they’re going through these drills and how do they process that?”

Golden retriever Molly looks up to her owner, Meg Zomorodi. She’s one of eight HAPPEE dogs on campus on Tuesday, Aug. 29, helping students and other folks on UNC Chapel Hill cope after the shooting that took place on Monday, Aug. 28.
Brianna Atkinson
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WUNC
Golden retriever Molly looks up to her owner, Meg Zomorodi. She’s one of eight HAPPEE dogs on campus on Tuesday, Aug. 29.

She said volunteering with HAPPEE has been a coping process in itself. It’s given her a chance to return to campus before having to go back into work and lets her be there for students.

UNC officials announced that classes are canceled through Wednesday. Students who need to talk can reach out to the Dean of Students or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for help. The University has also created a hotline for anyone who has questions at (919) 918-1999.

“This feels really good to be able to offer my dog for folks to love on her and to give hugs,” Zomorodi said. “And then when we go back to work, maybe I’ll still be giving hugs. That’s the kind of educator that I try to be. I want my students to know that they have me if they need me, no matter what.”

Brock and Matthews said that although they had some relief getting a chance to pet Molly, they still don’t know how to fully cope. It's also been stressful still having assignments due, and it doesn’t give them time to take in the situation, they said.

“Yesterday, most of the day was us hiding,” Brock said. “Today we’re supposed to rest, but there’s still due dates. And it’s like, when do we actually get to rest and process?”

Brianna Atkinson is WUNC’s 2024 Fletcher Fellow and covers higher education in partnership with Open Campus.
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