With a total solar eclipse occurring on the first day of the fall semester classes, Western Carolina University’s faculty and staff are taking steps to help ensure that everyone has the opportunity to safely view the rare celestial phenomenon.
And “everyone” means not just faculty, staff and students, as the university is making plans for a live online video stream to allow people far away from campus to witness the eclipse Monday, Aug. 21.
For those not up-to-speed on what is being billed as “the Great American Eclipse,” a narrow swath of North America – from Oregon on the Pacific Coast to South Carolina on the Atlantic – will be plunged into total darkness for a brief period of time during the daylight hours of Aug. 21. Jackson County and Cullowhee, home to WCU, are located in the path of totality, where the moon passes directly in front of the sun and completely covers it.
Tourism officials in Jackson and surrounding counties in the path of totality are marketing the region as a prime viewing location, and tens of thousands of eclipse-watchers from across the country and even from other nations are expected to converge on Western North Carolina for the once-in-a-lifetime event. The next total solar eclipse to occur in the skies over Cullowhee will be Oct. 17, 2153.
“The eclipse is occurring during the busiest time of the year on our campus – the start of a new academic year, when parking lots are maxed out,” said Melissa Canady Wargo, WCU chief of staff. “As a result, we won’t be able to accommodate viewing activities for the general public on campus.”
Most first-year students will begin moving in Friday, Aug. 18, with other students returning over the weekend leading up to the first day of classes – Aug. 21. “We are encouraging friends and family who are helping students move into campus residence halls to get to Cullowhee, get their students settled in and then head back home,” Wargo said. “Our friends at the Jackson County Tourism Development Authority tell us all the rooms in the county are booked.”
That’s where the idea to produce a live online video stream comes in, as a small army of faculty, staff, students and special guests is working to produce a 45-minute educational program scheduled to include experts on the science, history and culture of eclipses, in addition to a broadcast of the eclipse as it occurs.
“We decided that if we couldn’t invite the public to come to campus for the eclipse, let’s take the eclipse to the public,” said Bill Studenc, WCU director of communications and public relations. “We hope that those alumni and friends from outside the region who are unable to take advantage of the many public activities across Western North Carolina will tune in to our online broadcast to experience the eclipse.”
The live video stream will be hosted by Brandon Truitt, a 2016 graduate of WCU with degrees in communication and public science, who now is working at television station WNCT in Greenville. The online broadcast is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. with a series of live panel discussions and taped educational programming, with footage of the eclipse starting as the skies darken at approximately 2:35 p.m.
The live stream will be broadcast on www.wcu.edu/solareclipse and on WCU’s Facebook and YouTube sites.
On campus, WCU officials have decided that no classes will be held between 1 and 3 p.m. Aug. 21 to give students and faculty the opportunity to witness the eclipse. In addition, staff members who are able to be away from their desks or duty stations will be allowed to step outside to observe the phenomenon. Student Affairs staff members are planning activities in the vicinity of the A.K. Hinds University Center lawn and the Central Plaza fountain area, including music, food and panel discussions on eclipse-related topics.
University police and safety officials are advising commuting students, faculty and staff to expect the possibility of heavy traffic on Aug. 21, and to plan trips to and from campus accordingly.
The university has obtained special glasses to be made available to faculty, staff and students prior to the eclipse. Eclipse-watchers should use certified solar viewing glasses to avoid damage to the eyes from the sun’s intense rays, which are not blocked by the moon.
Students working with WCU’s Center for Service Learning and Office of Sustainability and Energy Management will be collecting the glasses after the eclipse for delivery to developing nations that will be experiencing their own solar eclipses in the next couple of years.
In addition, WCU’s Cherokee Center – in partnership with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Cherokee Historical Association and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian – will be hosting a two-day solar eclipse celebration Aug. 20-21. The phenomenon was described by the ancient Cherokee as when a giant frog that lived in the sky had swallowed the sun, causing darkness to occur during the daytime. The Cherokee would gather and beat drums and make noise so as to frighten the great frog away, allowing the sun to shine brightly again.
For more information on eclipse-related activities in Jackson County, visit the website https://www.discoverjacksonnc.com/total-solar-eclipse/.