Barefoot on the Mall celebrates end of academic year

After a spring semester filled with classes, papers and studying, it’s only natural that East Carolina University students would want to relax with their friends before final exams begin. ECU students have had the opportunity since 1979 to celebrate the end of the semester and relax at Barefoot on the Mall.

“Barefoot on the Mall is one the longest running traditions at ECU,” said Austin Vick, assistant director of student programming in the Office of Student Engagement and a 2016 ECU graduate. “It began in 1979 and was a celebration of the last day of class. It’s become a huge tradition here that everyone looks forward to.”

Barefoot on the Mall is held on the last day of spring semester classes. The event is hosted annually by the Student Activities Board (SAB) and includes rides, food, giveaways and live music. The festival is from 3-7 p.m. Tuesday. 

“It’s a celebration,” said Vick. “College is not always easy; it’s stressful. It’s good to have a way to celebrate making it to the last day of class. It gives students something to look forward to and a way to engage. It’s the coolest experience being able to see several thousand of your peers hanging out with each other listening to music, eating and spending time together.”

Planning for the event begins months in advance and involves both on and off campus constituents.

“This year’s event is on April 23 and we’ll start thinking about next year’s event on April 24,” said Vick. “The conversation is consistent throughout the year. What we learned from the previous year is immediately incorporated into the planning as we start looking ahead to next year. Most of the planning begins in August after students come back. We start that planning by looking at contracts and touring schedules of artists.”

Students sit in front of the Cupola at Barefoot on the Mall.

Students sit in front of the Cupola at Barefoot on the Mall.

Each year’s Barefoot on the Mall event centers on a theme. This year’s version is a barefoot blue jean night on the mall, centered on an overall country theme. Creating the event theme is a process that involves a lot of creativity, a bit of selling, and some luck.

“It’s a conversation similar to how the theme for homecoming is picked,” said Vick. “The Student Activities Board brainstorms a few fun themes, develops a few pitches and we see what fits. This year, we got lucky because after we decided to do a western/country theme so did several artists such as Beyonce and Post Malone and that was exciting for us. We then take the theme and look at how we can make it bigger.”

The ideas that the SAB presents are generated through both small and large discussions within the organization.

“The executive board will sit down and have conversations on what ideas we have and see which stand out and what we can create a whole event from,” said SAB president Aaliyah Bastfield. “The ideas are generated from all member meetings that are held where we discuss things as an organization and gain outside knowledge of what may be popular now, or what people around campus may want to see or interact with.”

Continuing with the country theme, platinum recording artist Parmalee is the main musical performer at this year’s event. The band, which has had three No.1 hits on the Billboard country chart including “Carolina,” “Just the Way” and “Take My Name,” started while its members were students at ECU and is named after the small Martin County town where they would rehearse.

Music, long a staple at Barefoot on the Mall, has evolved over the years of the event.

“The history of music at Barefoot on the Mall has shifted over time,” said Vick. “In the 1970s and 80s it was primarily a battle of the bands, student acts or local performers. A big shift occurred in the early 2000s both on our campus and nationally with bigger shows. There is some student input because you want to have a popular act and one that they’d like, but it has become more difficult as artists are more expensive and what we can access shifts continuously.”

Past musical performers include Kris Allen, A Great Big World, Jason Derulo, John Mayer, Jesse McCartney, Jason Mraz and T-Pain.

One of the biggest draws of the event is student giveaways, the most popular of which is a free commemorative T-shirt. Vick, who helped design the 2023 T-shirt, has seen the item across North Carolina.

“Last year myself and our graduate assistant were in the conference room designing the T-shirt and printed a few thousand,” said Vick. “I’ve seen them at the gym and at the North Carolina State Fair. I’ve been across the state and have seen a shirt that I helped design. Sometimes the longest line at the event is to get the free T-shirt. I know I have all of mine from when I was a student; it’s something that you hold onto as a memory.”

Balloon animals are one of the activities for students at Barefoot on the Mall.

Balloon animals are one of the activities for students at Barefoot on the Mall.

The 2024 T-shirt was designed by the ECU Creative Services department.

Besides T-shirts, student giveaways include customizable cowboy hats, leather wristbands and SAB items. Vick feels that the rise in popularity of student giveaways and additional activities is a way that the event has evolved over time.

“We’ve noticed that students love the other acts and activities during Barefoot,” said Vick. “It’s a huge space of inflatables, novelties and food. It’s more than just the concert, and that’s one of the biggest changes we’ve seen over the years. It’s not a concert that happens to have inflatables but a huge event for students that happens to have a concert.”

In addition to the cowboy hats and wristbands, activities at this year’s event include a mechanical bull, jousting, an obstacle course, extreme air trampoline, caricature artists and face painters as well as a photo booth. Along with the headlining concert, stage activities include line dancing, bingo and a western outfit showcase.

“I hope students get a feel of what an ECU community feels like and the atmosphere of togetherness that is being exemplified,” said Bastfield.

The biggest wild card for Barefoot on the Mall is weather.

“It’s one shot and everyone crosses their fingers,” said Vick. “You only have one last day of class. We had great weather last year and hopefully that will continue. The previous year we had to delay the event briefly for a thunderstorm. Safety is the biggest priority and we’ll do whatever we can to keep everyone safe while also having a good time.”

For over 40 years, Barefoot on the Mall has held a special place as part of the ECU experience. While many things have and will change, Barefoot on the Mall is one that Vick feels will continue.

“ECU has changed over the years, but the spot that hasn’t changed is the Mall,” said Vick. “When you think about students in 1979 coming together to listen to music and we’re doing the same thing they did today. Barefoot on the Mall is an experience and a memory that all Pirates get to have.”