Read Principal Rawson's opening address

Exeter begins its 241st year

On Sept. 10, 2021, Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08 delivered his Opening Assembly address to an audience in Love Gymnasium. Read the full text of his speech below. 

Good morning, Exeter.

Welcome to this Opening Assembly, the beginning of the 241st year of our school.

Last year, I delivered Opening Assembly on the steps of Phillips Hall, in front of 10 masked students who were sitting 10 feet apart, while all other students watched remotely on their computers from their dormitories, library carrels, or home.

What a difference a year makes!

How wonderful it is to see all of you gathered together, even if we are not able to be in the Assembly Hall, as is our tradition, and even if we must wear masks indoors, at least for now.

Students, it was quite moving to see the energy and appreciation with which you greeted the faculty this morning. We all feel the excitement of the new academic year, and the promise of great things to come. 

To our new students, I say first, you might not realize it yet, but you are surrounded by lifelong friends — you just haven’t met them all yet. 

And if anyone of you has any doubts, I assure you that you can succeed and thrive here.

Most importantly, you all belong here. You are Exonians now. We are thrilled that you are part of our school community and are ready to contribute to the life of the school.

Seniors, it is very special to see you in the front section!  Whether this is your fourth year at Exeter, or your first year, or in between, this will be an important and memorable year for you.  Your leadership across all aspects of school life will be important to the success of our school this year, and as we seek to be in community in ways that were not possible last year.

Uppers, we have 19 new uppers this year and 279 uppers in all.  In the spring, you will move into leadership positions in your own right, and your drive will push us all forward. It will be exciting to watch you learn and grow this year.

Lowers, have 215 returning and 65 new lowers this year — 280 in all.  You all have one thing in common: this is the first time any of you have attended an indoor, in-person, all-school assembly.  I welcome you to the full Exeter experience this year, and applaud you for your adaptability last year.           

Preps, 197 strong! Welcome to Exeter!  our eager delight to be here and begin your high school journey will be an inspiration to us all, and we welcome you warmly.  It might be hard to imagine, but in time you will be seniors, and a new class of preps will be looking up to you. 

Being here together in community is exciting. We are full of anticipation for the year ahead. With access to vaccines and testing capabilities that did not exist a year ago, we are fortunate to be able to attend class, participate in the arts, play sports, and conduct other activities in ways that we could not a year ago, with even fewer restrictions than were in place last spring. 

But we are all aware that we are still in a global pandemic, and the number of active COVID cases in New Hampshire has increased quite significantly in recent weeks. We count on your continued vigilance and close adherence to our COVID protocols as we start the school year. 



Pandemic or not, our mission as a school remains the same: to unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.

Our mission is derived from our Deed of Gift, written by John and Elizabeth Phillips in 1781, when they founded our school. The Deed of Gift states: “… though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, … both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to [hu]mankind.”

We make explicit our goal to unite goodness and knowledge, not for selfish ends, but to lay the surest foundation for your purposeful lives. The Deed of Gift fundamentally is a statement of belief that endowed with knowledge and goodness, you all can make a positive difference in the world, in whatever ways you choose, in whatever fields you choose, and on whatever scale you choose.

Our school seal, created in 1784, displays the Latin words non sibi — “not for oneself” — above a rising sun over the sea of knowledge.  These words express the philosophy at Exeter that wisdom gained here should be used for others as well as for oneself. Non sibi is more than a motto at Exeter — it is the very ethos of our school, and the spirit with which we hope you will go forward in life after your time here.

In 1965, the trustees of the Academy and the General Alumni Association created the John Phillips Award, renamed in 2019 the John and Elizabeth Phillips Award.  The award is given each year to a graduate of the Academy who has contributed significantly to the welfare of community, country or humanity, and whose life demonstrates the ideal of goodness and knowledge united in noble character and usefulness to humankind.  

Returning students will remember that the award was given last year to Dr. Emery Brown, class of 1974.  Dr. Brown came to Exeter from Florida, and once sat in Opening Assembly as a new student with no more certainty about the future than any of you have today.  At the end of his senior year, his yearbook page said, “You must reach out my son, and be meaningful.”  Dr. Brown did just that, and today is one of the world’s leading research scientists and doctors in the field of anesthesiology, and a member of all three branches of the National Academies: Medicine, Sciences and Engineering. In his acceptance speech at the award assembly, Dr. Brown spoke with great emotion, almost in tears, as he reflected on his time at Exeter, and how, in his words, “Exeter helped me become basically who I am.”

Dr. Brown’s story is typical of Exonians who return to Exeter to tell us that the education and opportunities they received here made the greatest difference in their lives - that Exeter transformed their lives, and moreover, that they can trace their accomplishments in life, and their service to others, to what they learned here.    

Like generations of Exonians before you, YOU are here for the same purpose — to lay the surest foundation for your own useful and purposeful lives, in whatever field of human endeavor you might eventually choose.   

With that goal in mind, you will want to work hard and aim high. As you should.  You are here to be challenged, along with other students who seek the same.  Athletes know that it is the hard practices that make the greatest difference, just as musicians know that tackling a difficult piece of music produces the greatest development in ability. 

I would like to give you three pieces of advice this morning that I hope will help you make the most of your experiences at Exeter.

First, while hard work is essential to your learning and growth, and to achieving your academic goals, exhaustion is not. Do not over-commit when planning your academic, extra- and co-curricular activities.  Certainly, you should explore new interests and try new things, and perhaps develop entirely new strengths that prior to coming to Exeter you never imagined you could have. But too much of a good thing is too much. Seek a reasonable balance in your academic and non-academic endeavors. And please, prioritize sleep. Adequate sleep is essential to your physical and mental health, and therefore to your success here and later in life.

Second, I urge you all to take full advantage of the many kinds of support — formal and informal — that we provide at Exeter to help you thrive inside and outside the classroom. I am referring to proctors and student listeners in the dorms, affinity groups, deans, counselors, your teachers, peer tutors, coaches, advisers, doctors and nurses, and more. These supports are an integral part of the community that we seek to create, and they exist for everyone; we all need the support of others to thrive. And just as you all will benefit from the support of others, you also all are capable of providing that support for your peers. You will have many opportunities to help your peers during your time here — that too is an integral part of the Exeter experience.    

Third, always keep in mind that a big part of the fun and joy of learning at Exeter is learning from one another, with positive, open-minded curiosity. And while you will seek to find your voices in our Harkness classrooms, listening will be the first and most important skill upon which your success and personal growth will depend. It is through listening that we come to understand how others think, can better understand our own thoughts and ideas, and can thereby achieve some greater common understanding.

You come from 43 states and 34 countries. The diversity of experiences, perspectives and talents that you bring to our school is a great strength, that will add immeasurably to your opportunities to learn, grow and excel, and also will propel us forward as a community.   

Our school’s vision statement for diversity, equity and inclusion, adopted in 2018, states: “We must harness perspectives from every quarter to encourage adults and students to think critically, realize and challenge their assumptions, and collaborate to forge a greater understanding of the world. This means developing an inclination toward, and facility with, diversity of thought, perspective and experience. This also means cultivating the empathy, understanding, and respect necessary to open one’s mind to those thoughts, perspectives and experiences that differ from one’s own.  Excellence today requires nothing less.”

Engaging across differences. Critical thinking. Empathy, and respect. With our Harkness pedagogy, we expect this to happen in the classroom.  But it also should happen outside of the classroom — in dorms, at Grill, on a team bus — so you can learn from one another as you debate the issues of the day about which you care so deeply. In the process, you will form the lifelong friendships about which I spoke earlier.

Learning together in this way is fundamental to our educational mission as a school, and fundamental to how as a community we work together to realize fully our vision for diversity, for equity, for inclusion. 

It is the essence of a Harkness education, and will prepare you well to be the kinds of citizens and leaders that our communities, and the larger world, desperately need.


I will conclude my remarks this morning by talking about gratitude.  Gratitude is a dominant theme at graduation every year, but it also is important to start the school year with some of the same thoughts in mind. 

When Yale professor Laurie Santos spoke in Assembly at Exeter in December 2018, she reminded us of the importance of gratitude to our well-being, and its powerful impact on both the person expressing gratitude and the person receiving it.

Particularly in a year when we will work to reconnect our community amidst an ongoing global pandemic, and when we see so much in the world that we would like to change, we should realize and recognize all that is offered to us at Exeter, and all the opportunities that we enjoy by being members of this community.

We should recognize the privileges that we all enjoy by being here, and appreciate the sacrifices of others that have made our time and experiences here possible.    

I have said many times that we are not special merely because we are here, but because we are here, we have the opportunity to accomplish special things.

I will be excited to see what special things you will accomplish this year.  I will be excited to see how you learn and grow, and how you lay the “surest foundation” for your own purposeful lives.

I urge you to be guided by the spirit of non sibi and concern for others in all that you do.  

I encourage you to aim high, with belief in your own abilities.

I wish you great joy and fun along the way.

This is going to be a great year.

Let’s get started.

Senior class.

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