2023 Graduation

Farewell address

In his farewell remarks (below) on June 4, 2023 Principal William K. Rawson ’71; P’08 welcomed the class of 2023 into a community of Exeter alumni that spans generations, including his own.

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Members of the Class of 2023: I am pleased to deliver this farewell address.

Soon you will be graduates of Phillips Exeter Academy. With diplomas in hand, you will be fellow Exeter alumni. In that sense, we will be peers, members of the same extended Exeter community that spans generations. 

I hope you will leave Exeter as I did many years ago – with a deep sense of gratitude for your time here, and a strong sense of belonging. 

Our mission as a school, as you know so well, is to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.

Your mission as students has been to learn and grow, make lifelong friends, pursue your passions, and prepare yourselves to lead purposeful lives.

You have done all that. You have been challenged during your time here, and you have succeeded. In all your endeavors – academic, artistic, athletic, and more – you have worked hard, aspired to excellence, and achieved excellence. Whether you have been here one year or four, or in between, you have grown in ways that you likely could not have imagined when you first arrived.

I have said many times that Exeter has never stayed strong by staying the same. Even in the last four years, like you, our school has grown and changed in important ways. We have become stronger in how we celebrate the rich diversity of our school community, and how we strive to create a strong sense of belonging for all members of our community. You have played important roles, often leadership roles, in this critically important work, and I thank you.

When I think back on my days as a student, my strongest memories are not about individual or group accomplishments. Of course, I do remember a few triumphs pretty vividly, and I remember a few disappointments. Yet, the sense of what it meant to be part of this community, with its long history and high ideals, and the lifelong friendships that came along with it, are what have had the greatest meaning and most enduring impact for me over the years. And it was my experience that my teachers really cared about me, expected a lot of me, and were uncompromising in their expectations, that gave me self-confidence and propelled me forward. I hope the same has been true for all of you, is true for you today, and will be what you hold most dear in the years ahead.

We must remember and recognize that your time here has not been easy. The pandemic posed significant challenges for our school and for all of you, from spring of Prep year right through last year. But nothing can prepare a school for the tragic loss that we experienced as a community in January.

You have faced adversity and loss with compassion, empathy and grace, determined to find a way forward together. Always together as a community. Drawing strength from one another. Caring for each other. 

Throughout your time here, but especially this year, I have admired how you have supported each other, cared for each other, and shown up for one another. I have seen this every day, in every corner of the campus, and in every facet of Academy life, and I have found it inspiring. 

I think that is why I believe I will always remember the class of 2023 not only for your accomplishments, which are considerable and many, but more importantly, for your indomitable spirit, your resilience, for how you have celebrated each other, and for the joy that you have brought to our school and all that you have done here.

Exeter is a collection of stories – stories which together comprise the rich history of our school. You now have your own stories – stories that are as much a part of the Academy’s history as the stories of any other class. It has been a great pleasure for me, for your teachers, and for all the adults on campus, to witness your stories unfolding, individually and as a class, and to observe firsthand your growth and your many contributions to the life and spirit of the school. 

There is a country music song which some of you might know called Don’t Get Above Your Raising. The song is about not forgetting where you came from. Don’t forget your roots. Don’t forget those who brought you into this world and have supported you all along. 

I trace my roots to a small mill town in Rhode Island where hockey was king and going to college not expected. My father was one of the rare exceptions; his athletic skills, particularly in hockey, combined with good grades, earned him an opportunity to attend Brown University, thirty minutes from the small mill town of Harrisville, Rhode Island, where he grew up. Years later, when I was a student here, Phillips Exeter Academy might have seemed worlds apart from my relatives who still lived in Harrisville, but in my mind, they stood for the same things: integrity, hard work and respect. 

My grandmother Eva Augusta Rawson, who went back to work in the mill when her husband died at a relatively young age, expected the same of me as my instructors did here. It was during my visits to Harrisville with my grandmother and my aunts and uncles, none of whom went to college, that my values were shaped. That is where I learned to respect the dignity of all work and the equal worth of every human life – values that were reinforced here at Exeter.

Phillips Exeter Academy is not above wherever you came from. Yet, an Exeter education is an extraordinary gift, and being here a great privilege. With that privilege comes great opportunity, and with opportunity comes responsibility. 

Our core value of non sibi expresses our belief that wisdom gained here should be used for the good of others as well as for oneself. We boldly proclaim, “Exeter seeks to graduate young people whose ambitions and actions are inspired by their interest in others and the world around them.” And we state further that “Exonians are motivated by this philosophy to face the challenges of their day.” 

The challenges of your day – whether viewed locally, regionally or globally -- are many and formidable, and you do not need me to list them for you.

Imbued with knowledge and goodness, you are ready to take your place in the world and confront our greatest challenges head on. With the abilities you brought with you and the skills you have developed here, and with all that you have learned here, you are ready for your next steps. 

Through Harkness, you have had the opportunity to learn with others whose experiences, backgrounds and perspectives differ from your own. You have grown in confidence as you have come to realize your capacity to learn and grow. And you have come to appreciate that human connection is at the foundation of all that we do and all that we can hope to accomplish in this world. You take these Harkness skills and experiences with you as you go forward in life, and are uniquely prepared to join and lead teams that will help develop solutions to our most intractable problems. 

You have attended many assemblies in which Exeter alumni have shared their stories about how they have taken what they learned here and have gone on to improve lives and change the world in some meaningful way. It is your turn now. You now will become the change makers. You are ready to follow the examples of Exonians who have come before, and write your own non sibi stories. You are ready, and you have what it takes. It will be exciting to see what paths you choose, and how you will lead your own purposeful lives.

I would like to close with a few more words about gratitude and belonging.

First, I would like to express my own gratitude for your time here, for all that you have contributed to the life of our school, and for the combination of purpose and joy that you have brought to our school and all you that have done here. I will miss you. I will miss this class. 

Second, regarding your own gratitude, in addition to being grateful to your families, teachers and all other adults who have supported you during your time here, I hope you also feel gratitude to prior generations of Exonians who have helped make Exeter what it is today, and who have thereby helped make your Exeter experiences possible. We should be grateful to those who came before, and accept our place and responsibility as part of the history of this great school. 

And lastly, with respect to belonging, please understand that your belonging at Exeter does not end today. You will always belong here. Your teachers, coaches and other mentors will continue to care for you, and will look forward to your return visits. In the years ahead, it will be deeply meaningful to them to see the impact they have had on your lives, and through your lives, on the world. After all, this is how they have chosen to be change makers. 

At the height of the pandemic, I told you, “Exeter lives within us and forms around us, no matter the distance between us.” Wherever your lives may take you, you will always be Exonians, and you will always belong to each other. 

Class of 2023: I wish you success and fulfillment in the years ahead. Please come back often to share your stories.