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UNT Student Offers Free Hugs to Passersby

The characters surrounding 20-year-old Robert Townsend on any given Wednesday are unique, even for a college campus. This Wednesday, they are especially noticeable: Spiderman and Venom stand atop a bench holding a sign with the words “Free Hugs,” while Townsend, in street clothes, sits next to a curly-haired skeleton, waiting for the next high five, hug or fist bump to come his way.

A psychology major and aspiring divorce counselor, Townsend has been on the giving end of hugs and other positive gestures since fall of 2015, when he began attending UNT as a freshman. Since then, he has created his own alternating group of people who attempt to spread joy every Wednesday at UNT.

The group, known formally as The Hug Squad, aims to spread happiness and counter what many see as hateful rhetoric from a man who preaches various Christian texts weekly at the same location, next to the Business Leadership Building.

“One of the things I feel the preacher tends to do is bring quite a bit of negativity towards various people,” Townsend said. “We have people come over, and they give us a hug and say I’m glad you’re here… I need someone to level my head after that.”

Currently a sophomore, Townsend formed The Hug Squad after a few weeks of standing near the preacher as a freshman with another UNT student, a junior who held a sign that said ‘preach love, not hate’. When the student stopped showing up, Townsend decided to create his own sign offering free hugs in order to spread positivity.

“It became obvious we needed to make our own thing,” Townsend said. “They’re not coming back, so we’ll be here to spread the love and joy and happiness and make people smile.”

While he isn’t currently taking classes at UNT because of financial concerns, Townsend still drives to Denton from his home in Caddo Mills weekly in order to give out hugs.

The one to two hour commute takes up a large chunk of his morning, amongst the many physical chores he also completes on the hay-farm he shares with his mother. Townsend wakes up and takes care of the horses, the dogs and the equipment he’ll need at UNT for the day. Once the car is loaded with whiteboards, expo markers and Mr. Strudel the skeleton, Townsend sets out for Denton solely to represent The Hug Squad.

He has never missed a Wednesday.

“[For me to be absent] has yet to happen,” Townsend said. “I don’t know what happens that day.”

Presumably, one of the other 30-odd members of the hug squad would keep the group going.

“We’re working towards developing a friendly little community in and amongst ourselves, and I think we’ve done pretty good with that,” Townsend said. “We’ve gone from being me, a skeleton, and two other people to an alternating group of about 30.”

Townsend said he aims to expand the group even further, and while he doesn’t currently have plans to make it an official UNT organization, Townsend would eventually like to create an avenue for The Hug Squad to raise money for charity.

For now, Townsend is content with the group’s role.

“We sprouted from a group about preaching love, not hate,” Townsend said. “I realized that with all the negativity and all the hatred that we were seeing in the news, there needed to be some sort of positive influence coming in from somewhere, even if it was ridiculous. I feel like we’re making an impact, we’re making people smile and we’re bringing people together.”

Turning Point USA gives Conservative Students Voice on Campus

Kimberly Murro talks to fellow UNT students at a table covered in libertarian merchandise: a roll of red, white and blue stickers proclaim “Big Government Sucks” in all capital letters, while a poster of John F. Kennedy condemning partisan politics and another declaring America to be “The best country on Earth. Period.” swing in the wind on either side of the table. Pins are spread across its surface, the classic red heart against a white background: I  ❤ Capitalism.

Murro is the founder and president of Turning Point USA, the new conservative organization on campus. She transferred from Texas A&M to UNT in spring of 2015 in order to be closer to her home in McKinney. Since then, she has changed her major from education to political science with the intention to attend law school, and eventually be a politician.

Murro considers herself part of a minority of students on campus, but is still vocal about her beliefs.

“I really strive to not care about what other people think, especially being a conservative on a liberal campus,” Murro said. “The second you let people get under your skin and let you feel afraid is when you submit.”

Turning Point USA is a non-profit organization founded in 2012 with a mission to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government,” according to its website. The grassroots organization also supports small government, capitalism, fossil fuels and gun rights.

“It’s kind of a challenge, I like it honestly,” Murro said. “Especially tabling, people come up and they’re like ‘I disagree with everything you think,’ and I’m like alright, let’s go, let me change your mind.”

In the current election, Murro is supporting the often controversial Donald Trump, but “more as a settle” than wholeheartedly.

“At the end of the day, you have to back the policy over the party because both situations are stuck with two pretty shitty options,” Murro said of the major party nominees.

Despite her lack of passion for the candidates, Murro regularly courts an active interest in legislative issues.

Middle school was when Murro discovered this zeal for all things political.

Listening to the radio with her father one day, Murro heard about a regional convention for the Tea Party. She decided to attend, and was inspired by the people she met.

While her love for politics grew throughout middle and high school, Murro didn’t fully embrace grassroots activism until college.

In spring of 2016, Murro became involved with Turning Point USA at the regional level. She enjoyed the organization, but even then was not aiming to open a chapter at UNT. Instead, she planned on being a part of College Republicans at UNT, but the organization suffered from leadership issues and became inactive.

“I got involved in College Republicans initially and then I kind of got sick of how stagnant it was,” Murro said. “There was absolutely no conservative say on our campus, which is why I started Turning Point.”

For now, Turning Point USA at UNT has 15 members, and Murro admits that getting people to join is no easy task.

Regardless of the difficulty, she plans to persist. According to her best friend Bailey Vert, determination is one of Murro’s strongest qualities.

“Kim [Murro] is successful in her organizations because she is so driven,” Vert said. “Anything she sets her mind to she can accomplish.”

Murro’s determination and faith in her ideals is prominent in the way she acts and talks, in the tone of her voice and the stride of her gait. She is confident, even when those around her disagree with her, and perhaps especially then.                   

“I am pretty independent and outspoken as a person, so I don’t find it hard to share my beliefs,” Murro said. “I’m gonna stand up for what I believe in regardless of whose name is on our ticket and where I am on this campus.”

Turning Point USA’s next meeting will be at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 15 in the UNT Gateway Center. The meeting will be an open forum with the founder of Turning Point USA, Charlie Kirk, and will include discussion of free speech, free markets, limited government and millennials.

Biography

As an aspiring journalist with ambitions to work internationally, constantly evaluating opposing viewpoints can be very useful. Spending my childhood in the U.S. and my teenage years in Bangladesh gives me a multidimensional world view that can be confusing but useful in constructing a comprehensive understanding of a topic

My experience with writing spans a variety of forms from putting together literary magazines to being editor of my high school paper to interning for a local newspaper.

I currently write for the North Texas Daily, with a focus on sexual violence on campus.

Other than reading and talking about the news, I enjoy tea, books, and the outdoors.13063252_10154131373042640_2064449168875126424_o-2