College Cousins: University of North Carolina and University of Virginia

The ink was barely dry on North Carolina’s long-delayed formal ratification of the U.S. Constitution when the state passed a bill chartering “a university supported by permanent funds” in late 1789. In due course, a site was selected, in Chapel Hill, where the school’s first students began their studies in 1795. The University of North Carolina made its mark then, and it continues to do so right into the 21st century. Check any ranking and you’ll see how highly regarded it continues to be.

Public schools are “public” because they receive state government funding – but that funding comes with parameters for admitting students who are residents of that state. As a result, highly regarded public universities often have tremendous competition for the smaller percentage of seats that are then open to students from outside its state boundaries. Sometimes it’s nearly as hard for an out-of-stater to be admitted to a highly ranked public university, such as UNC, as to one of our country’s (private) Ivy League institutions.

The same can be said of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. It remains one of the most popular and prestigious American universities today, but it was also notable right from the start. Readers probably know the university’s connection to Thomas Jefferson, who conceived of the school in the early 1800s and worked to bring about its founding in 1819. He was active in university affairs right up until his death on July 4, 1826, but he shared the spotlight during the last year of his life with two other founding fathers. Former President James Madison became the university rector (president) that year, and James Monroe, having just completed his own two terms as our country’s president, served on the university’s governing body (the Board of Visitors) and lived during his retirement years on the campus grounds. Quite a legacy!

Despite this extraordinary history, UVA doesn’t spend much time looking backward. It is very much invested in giving its students the best of a 21st century education while still incorporating time-honored studies in its curriculum. At UVA, students can study the classics or Medieval English, or, if they prefer, pursue cutting-edge studies in neuroscience or nanomedicine engineering.  UNC displays a similar approach by adding a 21st century sensibility to its program offerings without abandoning its commitment to traditional courses of study. Its students can explore archaeology or comparative literature, or they can turn to more contemporary pursuits such as biological and genome sciences or global cinema studies. Of course, these are just a few examples out of the rich curricula offered at both institutions, and both universities have distribution requirements that ensure students graduate with a well-rounded education.

For two universities that are so well known and in the public eye, it is perhaps curious that each has a bit of a head-scratcher for a nickname. After all, what in the world is a “tar heel”? And what’s a “wahoo,” for that matter? Okay, here’s the scoop. The term “tar heel” dates to before the Civil War, when it was used as a derogatory term for low wage earners who worked in the North Carolina tar fields. Despite the name’s pejorative origins, however, North Carolinians, over time, came to embrace it, and for more than a century the nickname has been viewed as a badge of honor. Equally curious is UVA’s unofficial “Wahoo” nickname. The school’s official nickname is the “Cavaliers,” but at any UVA sporting event, you can hear the “Wahoo” chant. Perhaps that’s because it’s easier to chant than “Cavalier,” but perhaps there’s a deeper meaning too. Some believe the nickname stems from the wahoo fish, a species that can consume twice its weight in water. Hmm… it doesn’t take a UVA degree to see the correlation.

Distinctive nicknames and centuries-long histories aren’t the only attributes that UNC and UVA have in common. Both are East Coast. Both are southern. Both have undergraduate populations in the upper teens – UVA about 16,000 and UNC closer to 19,000. Both are located in middle-sized cities. Both have active sports programs. Both offer tons of opportunities for its students. Both are world-class research institutions. Both are known for outstanding academics and are highly ranked in multiple categories year after year.

Both are impressive in every category. You gotta love ’em both!