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Duke vs. UNC: Free Hugs campaign

Even Blue Devils need hugs every once in a while.

About a month ago, two friends left behind their lives in the Northeast to take a road trip across America—sharing free hugs with universities in more than 23 states, from New York to California, with no defined end date. Matt Wargo, the hugger, and Jarrett Gardner, the photographer, arrived in North Carolina last week to see who likes to share the love more—Blue Devils or Tar Heels.

At Duke, Wargo and Gardner attended a football game, rode the C1 and took a promenade on the BC Plaza, while holding up a bright yellow “Free Hugs” sign—clicking his hug counter each time he collected handshakes, casual embraces and bear hugs.

Although he received 222 hugs here—including one that carried him clear across the Plaza, nicknamed “the capture”—Wargo said Duke was flush with the “iPod syndrome.” With the ability to put in earbuds and tune out one’s surroundings, people are actively avoiding human contact, Wargo said. That is, until he mentioned he would also be visiting the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Some [students] either avoided eye contact or came up with excuses to not come up for their hug…. They just seemed too shy or busy to connect,” Wargo wrote in his Facebook blog. “But when we let them know UNC was also participating in this national competition anyone within earshot wanted a hug just to beat them. Nothing wrong with being competitive.”

One student told Wargo that his sign was upside down, after he had been carrying it that way for several minutes, but did not stop for a hug.

But some who welcomed the hugs said Wargo and Gardner’s project can really turn someone’s day around.

“This is a really nice gesture—if I was having a bad day, this would really make me smile,” said sophomore Vanessa Nwaokocha, after getting up from the blue swinging chairs on the Plaza for a hug.

At UNC, they received several more hugs—250. They have about 18,500 undergraduates, however, and we have 6,400, so our student-to-hug ratio is about three times as high as theirs. But UNC does get some extra points for Zombie and Zombie Hunter hugs—part of some sort of school-wide zombie game.

Wargo said it was worth quitting his job as a clerk to take this “trip of a lifetime,” staying with friends and family along the way. He was inspired by the Free Hugs campaign, which encourages people to brighten up a stranger’s day with something as simple as a hug.

“I’ve always wanted to take a road trip,” Wargo said. “Just drop everything and go do what makes you happy in life. It was difficult to do… leaving the most comfortable situation I’ve had in my life.”

Spending five hours each at various universities with some sight-seeing in between, Wargo and Gardner have uplifted spirits all along the East Coast—giving much more than 1,000 hugs so far. At Delaware State University, they gave more than 500.

“At one school, we talked to this kid for a couple hours who had been depressed for weeks and didn’t have anyone to talk to,” Gardner said.

Wargo and Gardner have received various courtesies in exchange—free beer, cigarettes, food, boogie boards, headphones and a zombie dart. At Duke, they were treated to a meal and a football game.

“I respect your work,” said freshman Stephanie Ogwo.

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