2021 Graduation

Farewell address

On June 6, 2021, Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 delivered his Commencement address in Phelps Stadium. Before him sat the graduating seniors, in chairs six feet apart. Watch his speech or read the full text below.

Class of 2021, in less than an hour you will be graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy. I am very pleased to deliver this farewell address.

My graduation was held in this stadium on June 5, 1971, 50 years ago plus one day. I felt a sense of joy that day, joy that comes with a feeling of accomplishment. I felt a certain pride, or happiness, in being part of a school whose values were important to me, where hard work and integrity meant a lot, where teachers and coaches expected and demanded that we be our best, and where students delighted in each other’s successes and accomplishments. I felt prepared for what lay ahead, and certain that the bonds of friendship forged here would endure. I was leaving with a strong sense of belonging.

And now, it is time for you to leave Exeter, hopefully with many of the same feelings I had all those years ago.

We must begin by acknowledging that this has been a very challenging year. We have been through a pandemic — in fact, are still experiencing a pandemic — the likes of which the world had not seen in more than 100 years. We have been fortunate, very fortunate indeed, to be able to teach, learn and be in community during the pandemic as much as we have, while much greater hardship and loss have been experienced in other parts of the United States and around the world. Even so, we must acknowledge that the pandemic has posed significant challenges for our school, and for all or you.

Happily, with vaccines available and a decline in local cases, you have enjoyed a senior week with activities that we could not have imagined only a few weeks ago. It is wonderful to see you sitting here not wearing masks. It has been a long 15 months, since spring of last year when we had to close campus unexpectedly, and you had to learn remotely. Meeting the Academy’s expectations under the constantly changing circumstances of the pandemic, and achieving your own ambitions under these conditions, has been very challenging.

Seniors, I am grateful for all that you have done during the course of the year to help keep our community safe, and I am proud of how you have adapted to these circumstances during the course of the year. I am proud — and you should be proud — of all that you have accomplished, and all that you have contributed to our school during your time here.

You have distinguished yourselves in academics, individually and as teams, including in numerous prestigious competitions across a wide range of disciplines. You have excelled in music, drama, dance and the visual arts with commitment and passion. Finally, this spring, it was exciting to see our athletes compete against other schools. You had a winning record, by a decisive margin, across all competitions against our rival to the south. In all of your endeavors, you have worked hard, given your best and aspired to excellence, and you have achieved excellence.

In the spirit of non sibi, you have provided strong leadership across all aspects of school life, and you have helped us maintain a strong sense of community despite the isolation imposed and felt during the pandemic. You also played critical leadership roles in our anti-racism work, and have endeavored throughout your time here to make our school more inclusive and more equitable.

Your commitment to non sibi has extended to the local community, as you cooperated to help safeguard the health and safety of the town, and developed creative ideas for ESSO interactions with senior citizens and other residents in our town. Equally important, you have supported each other, and made lifelong friends.

I will say again that I am immensely proud of all that you have contributed and done. You have not done all of this alone. We must acknowledge how your families have supported your education at Exeter, especially this year. Please take a moment, and with rousing cheers and applause, let’s thank your families for the support they have given you during your time at Exeter.

We also must recognize and thank all of the adults on campus who have played a significant role in your time here. Those who have taught, coached, advised or counseled you, kept you healthy and safe, and fed you during this pandemic year, and also those who have worked behind the scenes in many ways to support your education and experiences at Exeter. Please again take a moment to express your gratitude for everything they have done to support you.

And now a few words about what lies ahead: I feel tremendous optimism for the class of 2021. I see in your class the qualities and abilities that will enable you to live up to what Stephen Robert, class of 1958, said to you in assembly two years ago. He boldly declared, “Your time has come, and you will be the change-makers.”

You are ready to live up to those words and make a positive difference in the world, in whatever venues and on whatever scale you choose. Just as you have done here.

In our core value statement of non sibi, we proudly proclaim that we seek to graduate young people whose ambitions and actions are inspired by their interest in others and the world around them, and that the wisdom gained here should be used for others as well as for oneself. The world now more than ever needs you to confront the greatest challenges of our day, and do what you can to produce a more just and sustainable society — environmentally, economically and socially. Go be the change-makers.

Go with confidence. You have been challenged during your time here, and you have succeeded. Whether you have been at the Academy for one year or four, you have grown in ways that you could not have imagined when you first arrived.

Our mission as a school is to “unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.” You don’t need to know now how you will live a life of purpose and meaning beyond Exeter. You have time to reflect, to ponder your place in the world, to explore your current passions and develop new ones. You are leaving Exeter with the necessary foundation.

In the past 50 years, we have seen dramatic changes in the world in every field of human endeavor. We will see even more dramatic changes over the next 50 years. One thing, though, will not change: the need for citizens and leaders to act with empathy, understanding and respect for their fellow human beings. You will be those kinds of citizens and leaders.

Intellect alone will not be enough. As our Deed of Gift states, knowledge and goodness: “Both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to [hu]mankind.” John and Elizabeth Phillips wrote those words in 1781. They remain true today.

As you go forward with confidence, go forward also with humility — with the humility that comes from understanding that we are at our best when we are open to the thoughts and ideas of others, particularly those whose experiences and perspectives differ from our own. The greatest challenges the world faces will be solved by teams, not individuals. Our Harkness pedagogy has uniquely prepared you to be a member and leader of these teams.  

Seniors, I am coming to the end of my remarks. After you receive your diplomas, I will no longer be able to call you seniors. You will be fellow Exeter alumni. In that sense, you and I will be peers, members of the same extended Exeter community.  

As I left Exeter 50 years ago with a strong sense of belonging, I hope you, too, will leave with the same feeling today. And I hope you will return to the Academy often to share your stories with future Exonians, and by your example, and through your stories, encourage and inspire them.

And finally, just as you will always belong here, so too will you always belong to each other. You will always be the great class of 2021.