Campus Y: An Early Campus Leader in Global Engagement

January 1, 2019

Photo of the Campus Y between 1868-1912.

The Campus Y at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the first University organizations to understand the importance of involving students in the world outside of Chapel Hill. Throughout its history, as both a functioning YMCA from 1860 to 1976 and after as the campus center for social justice, the Y has served as a vibrant “idea lab” for global student engagement. From a very early date, the Campus Y has emphasized a broader world view for Carolina students at home and abroad and has also at times served as a welcome and aid center for international students.

In 1891, the YMCA formed a Missionary Volunteer Band, which raised funds to send a student to Japan to teach in a public school and do “Christian work.” By 1907, the YMCA was raising enough money annually to send three students to various developing countries around the world for similar purposes. These were in essence the first study abroad or “gap year” programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and included equal parts humanitarian service and non-denominational evangelicalism. Many Carolina students went to Asia, which helped to build a strong exchange student program with Japan, especially in the 1930s and 1940s.

After World War II, as the Y’s emphasis on religion gradually shifted toward secular humanism and cross-cultural understanding, the organization’s global activities shifted as well. Missionary service was replaced in the 1950s with summer trips abroad led by Campus Y directors, turning the focus away from tourist destinations toward activities engaging students directly with local citizens and families. With its long history of sending students abroad in humanitarian service, the Campus Y was a natural fit to serve as the Carolina headquarters of the Peace Corps when it was created in the early 1960s.

The Campus Y has been involved historically in numerous programs, conferences, and events designed to encourage students to develop a broad worldview and engage with global issues and cultures on the Carolina campus. From the late 19th century to the present, the Y has sponsored speakers from around the world, as well as academics and experts on a variety of contemporary international topics. Periodically between 1926 and 1943, the Y organized the Institute for Human Relations, a conference that addressed national and international issues of the day. After World War II, the Carolina Symposium was established to facilitate campus dialogue on global affairs, such as nuclear non-proliferation and the Cold War.

Following the creation of the United Nations in 1948, a series of regional “Model UN” sessions was established in colleges across the country to provide a forum for students to discuss current world problems, and the UNC-Chapel Hill chapter was operated by the Campus Y. (The Model UN was resurrected in 2000 by the Carolina International Relations Association, and now engages high school students.) The Y helped establish the International Student Service offices in the 1960s and led the campaign in the 1980s to divest the University’s endowment of companies doing business with the apartheid government in South Africa.

One of the most popular festive events organized annually by the Campus Y from the late 1950s into the 1980s was the International Bazaar, held annually to expose students at Carolina to a wide range of world arts and food, and to allow international students an opportunity to share their culture. The Bazaar also provided a critically important revenue stream that financed the student activities of the Y at that time.

Over the past two decades, the Y’s focus has shifted to assist students and faculty in launching global companies and initiatives that address issues such as worldwide hunger, rural healthcare, micro-finance, and access to clean water.

UNC-Chapel Hill Global Gap Year fellows at the Campus Y.

Along with inspiring and incubating global projects, in 2011 the Campus Y designed a high impact “gap year” program for incoming first-year students who defer their acceptance to UNC-Chapel Hill to pursue a combination of work, travel, and volunteer service outside of the United States. The Global Gap Year Fellowship (GGYF) was only the second such university program in the United States, and the only one to specifically recruit first generation, low-income students and students of color. Uniquely, it also allows participants, with the support of Campus Y staff and Carolina faculty, to design their own gap-year experiences. When fellows return to Carolina, the Y helps them integrate their global experiences into coursework and leadership roles on campus. The GGYF endowment provides stipends for seven incoming first-years to take a gap year and offsets a portion of the operating costs of administering the program. Selection is highly competitive, with approximately 100 applicants a year. As of 2018, there were 28 returned Fellows on campus at Carolina and six in the field; the first cohort graduated in May 2016. With the help of new donor, the Meantime Café, the Y funded two students in 2017 and two in 2018 to take a bridge year between their second and third year of college.

In partnership with the Center for Global Initiatives and the APPLES Service-Learning program at the Carolina Center for Public Service, the Campus Y helped design UNC-Chapel Hill’s Global Orientation on Ethics and Culture (GO!) in 2007, a one-day “crash course” to prepare undergraduate students before they embark on internships, public service projects, and research abroad. A few years later, the Y launched the Global Circle to extend the capacity building and intercultural learning objectives of GO! throughout the academic year, so that students received assistance while developing their projects. The Y staff and student leaders currently organize workshops and invite speakers to prepare students for potential cultural and ethical challenges of engagement in grassroots communities overseas, and a six-module online toolkit is available to all Campus Y Global Gap Year Fellows.

Over the past ten years, the Campus Y has raised and awarded $100,000 in global engagement fellowships to support undergraduate public service projects outside of the United States. Global Fellows have drafted business plans for a women’s cooperative in Turkey and an orphanage in Ecuador; volunteered at a Burmese refugee camp on the border with Thailand; assisted in construction of public health infrastructure in rural parts of Ghana and Uganda; taught English in a middle school in Rwanda; and digitized adoption records for an orphanage in Nairobi, among other endeavors.

From its inception, the Campus Y has encouraged generations of students to translate their commitment and passion for social justice and human rights into sustainable action, providing a physical and intellectual space for them to meet with peers, work in teams to design and execute projects, and to reflect on what they are learning. Both locally and globally, the Y challenges students to put academic learning into practice – before, during, and after their time in college. Carolina’s global outreach began at the campus YMCA more than a century and a quarter ago. Today’s Campus Y, the center for social justice at Carolina, is a leader in helping students develop skills and core competencies before they go abroad, as well as providing assistance for them to weave those global experiences into their lives and work on campus and in the community.

This story was originally published in the 2019 issue of Carolina Passport magazine.

By Kenneth Joel Zogry