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The Main Event: Furman University/Solar Eclipse

By Selena Fragassi


There's nothing like a once-in-a-lifetime feat of nature to bring out the crowds. In August, Furman University welcomed more than 10,000 visitors and an additional 4,000 students, faculty, and staff that had recently returned for the school year to the Paladin Stadium to get a front-row seat to the first total solar eclipse since 1918. "It was an incredible thing to see, with all the people everywhere with glasses on viewing this great event," says Tony McGuirt, director of Younts Conference Center & Summer Programs at the university.

Located in Greenville, South Carolina, Furman was in the direct path of the eclipse as it traversed the United States and left viewers in the stadium in total blackout for a full two minutes. "We had the perfect weather for it, with completely clear skies," adds McGuirt, noting that in almost every aspect the event went off without a hitch.

A committee of 12 staff had been planning for the gathering since April. "We relied on our marketing communications department to get the word out through news releases, social media, and our website," says McGuirt. The strategy worked so well that McGuirt says a large majority of the crowd was from out-of-state and he even ran into a family from London that had planned their U.S. holiday around the solar stunner. "I asked them how they found us and they said on the web, so we knew it was effective."

One of the biggest challenges in preparing for the free viewing was trying to anticipate how many people would actually show up, particularly since Furman didn't have tickets or take any RSVPs. "We were anticipating up to 10,000 guests, but as the momentum built up, we began to realize it would probably be larger than that," says McGuirt. "So we had to be prepared for a 'sell out,' and anticipate what we would do if we ran out of parking, for example." In that case the plan would have been to close the gates and say the venue was at capacity. "But thankfully we actually never had to do that. We came close, but we could have put a few more in the [16,000-seat] stadium," he adds. "A lot of people chose to stay outside the stands and fill up the grassy areas, too."

Outside the stadium guests had plenty of events to occupy their time starting at noon, two hours before the main event. "There were various booths, probably about 20, where people could buy food, kids could take part in STEM activities, and there were sponsors focused on health, climate science, and other topics," notes McGuirt who says the school provided water for all 14,000 guests due to the excessive heat on the day. The university also purchased 10,000 specially designed protective glasses, which could be picked up at various points on campus, allowing people to turn their eyes to the skies without risking any vision damage.

The main benefit of being inside the stadium though was the addition of Physics Professor David Moffett who emceed the event and provided in-depth commentary. "He was telling folks what was happening as time passed, what was happening in other states at various times, and really just walking folks through the whole process," says McGuirt. "He was extremely informative." The jumbotron screens on the field also carried a live stream from NASA that gave the full grasp of the momentous event. "We wanted to make it entertaining and educational at the same time," admits McGuirt. Several students from Furman as well as nearby campuses were also conducting experiments on-site, in an area separate from the crowd where they could gather data. Media, too, also came out in full force with Furman receiving coverage from local news stations like WUSA-9, WYFF-4, and national outlet Thrillist.

"It was a tremendous PR event for us as well," says McGuirt, further nothing that the main goal for the staff was to make it a memorable experience for everyone involved. "One of our missions is to be part of the community and give back, and so we hope they enjoyed the day and walked away with positive view of Furman and felt welcome to come back and share the word about us."

There is a good chance that could happen in seven years, if not before, as the next major eclipse crosses the same path in 2024.

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Furman University
Greenville, SC
(864) 294.2390