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Embracing Dorm Life to Witness the 2024 Solar Eclipse in New York

POTSDAM, New York — Twenty years after bidding farewell to dorm life, I found myself unexpectedly drawn back in by the allure of a total solar eclipse.

Over the past few days, my daughter Zadie, 15, and I have taken up residence in a vacant section of Knowles Hall North, a dormitory here at SUNY Potsdam, to witness the celestial marvel occurring on April 8. For a modest 60 per night (in contrast to the 370 rate at my original hotel), we have rested in sleeping bags on unoccupied extra-long twin beds, opting out of carrying our own sheets and blankets, all in anticipation of experiencing the fleeting moments of totality when the moon obscures the sun.

The rooms tend to get a bit warm, the bathrooms are shared, and we are not the sole occupants.

In total, SUNY Potsdam has made available approximately 50 unused dormitory rooms, each equipped with two beds, to university alumni and individuals like myself who stumbled upon the link online, willing to relive their college days and exchange the comforts of a hotel for the proximity to SUNY Potsdam. The university is hosting a variety of educational activities centered around the eclipse, attracting the attention of alumni such as Colleen Parriott, a member of the SUNY Potsdam Class of ‘82 from Sparta, New Jersey, who, along with her husband Don, altered their year-long eclipse-watching plans in the bustling city of Rochester to return to the quaint village of Potsdam, home to 15,000 residents.

“We heard that Rochester was going to become a zoo, and we got something from Potsdam saying that they were going to open the dorms, and that they were going to have sort of a festival,” shared Colleen Parriott, 64, as we engaged in a card game in a communal area within the dorm. She noted that the educational programs were particularly appealing. “And that was attractive to us, because we are total nerds.”

A view of dorm life for solar eclipse chasers at SUNY Potsdam in New York for the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024.

Interestingly, the dormitory where we are lodged, Knowles Hall North, is the very same residence where Parriott resided during her undergraduate years at SUNY Potsdam. While the exterior remains unchanged, there are subtle differences within.

“I’m on the first floor now,” Parriott remarked. “When I was here, the first floor was designated for males, and the second floor for females, except for the end, which was for males, as they typically segregated the halls.”

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Sarah Huggins, a SUNY Potsdam alum from the Class of ‘81, noted that her original dorm, Knowles Hall West, is in close proximity, yet the rooms appear somewhat altered from her recollections as a student.

“Over the years, it does seem to be a lot more challenging,” remarked Huggins, 65, a retired former Department of Defense official who journeyed from Argyle, New York—a 3-hour trip—for the eclipse. “But it’s all part of the experience.”

It was this collegiate experience that initially drew my attention to SUNY Potsdam. Following a recommendation from my friends Cynthia and Ethan Wheeler, I saw the Potsdam event as an excellent opportunity to witness a remarkable solar eclipse affordably, while also introducing my teenage daughter to the essence of campus life.

After two nights in the dorms, she appears unperturbed.

“I think it’s cool to see what it’s like to be a college student,” Zadie expressed during a lasagna dinner conversation the night before the eclipse. “But if I were to stay here for a full semester, I probably would have brought sheets.” Tomorrow, we are scheduled for a tour of the SUNY Potsdam campus, and hopefully, we will unravel the mystery behind the Anthropology Department’s concept of “eclipse-themed cooking” in one of the day’s activities.

An illustration of a total solar eclipse over a clock tower

An artist’s depiction of the clock tower at the State University of Potsdam in New York during the 2024 total solar eclipse. (Image credit: SUNY Potsdam)

Ethan, my friend, did come prepared with sheets and blankets for himself and his daughter Catalina, who, like Zadie, is a high school freshman. Nonetheless, the rooms remain somewhat warm.

“As an alumnus of the SUNY system [he graduated from SUNY Morrisville, Class of ‘96], it was truly special to return,” Ethan shared during the dinner. “I was genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to stay here, even if the rooms were limited. It added an adventurous element to our experience.”

His daughter Catalina succinctly captured the essence of the stay.

“I suppose it made me more enthusiastic about college, rather than dreading growing up,” Catalina reflected. “The dorms were nicer than I had anticipated. Having a bathroom would be nice, you know, but I appreciate the ample lighting and the large window. It feels like a fun sleepover every day, sharing a room with someone.”

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