As afternoon clouds rolled in, threatening to shroud the view of the first total solar eclipse in the skies over Cullowhee in more than 500 years, the nearly 4,000 students, faculty, staff and community members who had packed the A.K. Hinds University Center lawn and Central Plaza issued a collective groan.

But, like some sort of celestial miracle, the clouds parted mere minutes before the Aug. 21 eclipse reached totality, and the crowd broke into spontaneous cheers and applause – and a few tears – as the skies went dark in the middle of the afternoon for the Great American Eclipse. Chancellor David O. Belcher called the eclipse-viewing party a great way to start the academic year and to build a sense of community around the shared experience as the only University of North Carolina System campus in the path of totality.

“When I first heard that we were going to have a total solar eclipse in Western North Carolina on the first day of a brand new school year, I thought ‘really?’ As if things are not hectic enough at the opening of a new school year, now we’re going to have the first total solar eclipse in this region since the year 1506? And the next total solar eclipse won’t be happening for another 136 years? Really?” Belcher said. “But after the initial shock, I realized that this truly is an incredible experience, and that we needed to do whatever we could do to ensure that members of our university community could witness the eclipse.”

The university made available special certified solar viewing glasses so that the crowd could watch without risking eye damage from harmful rays of the sun. The Division of Student Affairs passed out T-shirts and served ice cream, funnel cakes and – of course – MoonPies. Staff members from several units collaborated to mount a 45-minute live online broadcast featuring several subject matter experts and hosted by Brandon Truitt ’16, anchor and reporter at WNCT-TV.

In addition to the official viewing party, hundreds of eclipse-watchers viewed the event from other vantage points in Cullowhee, including intramural fields, around the Ramsey Regional Activity Center and John W. Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center, and anywhere folks could find a shady spot to set up lawn chairs and blankets.