Exeter Family Weekend 2021

Parents return to campus to reconnect with students, soak in Exeter life.

Patrick Garrity and Adam Loyd
October 18, 2021

More than a thousand moms and dads descended on Exeter’s campus Friday for a Family Weekend a year overdue.

The annual October pilgrimage was consigned to Zoom last fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety measures the pandemic necessitated. The resumption of the tradition — with health and safety protocols still in place — featured a variety of programming for parents and families and opportunities to meet and hear from faculty, deans, coaches and counselors.

>> Unable to attend this year's Family Weekend? Watch recordings of many of our events at Exeter Live.
Highlights of the two-day event included:
  • A conversation with Principal Bill Rawson ’71; P’08 and Dean of Students Russell Weatherspoon P’92, ‘95, ‘97’ 01;
  • A faculty panel featuring several department heads and Dean of Faculty Ellen Wolff;
  • Grade-specific programming from the College Counseling Office;
  • An assembly address delivered by Emmy Award-winning designer Chris Do P’22.

Rawson and Weatherspoon shared remarks Saturday morning from the Assembly Hall stage and then fielded questions from parents in the audience. Both educators bring a parent perspective to their roles: Rawson’s son graduated in 2008; Weatherspoon and his wife, Jackie, put four children through the Academy. Their humorous introductory remarks touched on the joyful misery all parents of teenagers endure.

“I was talking to a prep a few years ago, and I asked him if he missed his parents,” Rawson recounted. “He said, ‘No.’

"So, I probed a little further, and he said, ‘Well, parents aren’t really my thing right now.’”

Weatherspoon told the assembled parents, “I’m standing here before you in a pair of Nike Air sneakers. The Nike Air sneakers that I am wearing are ‘seriously chill.’ They were sent to me by my daughter, who has a job. I mention this as a point of hope for you.”

Each man discussed what they hope students savor from their Exeter experience and the relationships they build here. Weatherspoon spoke of how the Harkness method permeates every facet of life on campus, and how those "dynamic, ongoing conversations" have kept him at Exeter for 34 years.

“The phrase ‘let’s Harkness it’ — meaning let’s sit down together, let’s talk, let’s listen, let’s deeply listen — that experience that one learns here is truly transformative and leaks out into the rest of our life, dormitories, teams, artistic collaborations, etcetera, it really does become a psychological and community anchor for everything else we do,” he said.

The dean told the parents in the audience what he has told students who have come through the Academy for decades.

“Please remember, when you applied to Exeter, we didn’t create the miracle that is you, you brought that with you," he said. "We’re delighted to have you here, but your being here doesn’t make you somebody. You came here as somebody.”

Chris Do’s presentation Friday morning served as the informal kickoff to the weekend’s events and opened with an introduction from Otto Do ’22, a four-year senior who lives in Peabody Hall, who admitted to struggling with how best to introduce his father.

“I called him last night and asked him, ‘Dad, what are you? I don’t know what to call you!’” the younger Do recounted to the Assembly Hall audience of students. Families watched remotely from Love Gym and the Elizabeth Phillips Academy Center. “I don’t really know what exactly it is he does because he does a little bit of everything.”

Chris Do told his son to call him a teacher and content creator — “at Exeter I’ve yet to see a teacher wear a snapback cap to class,” Otto said — but Do’s remarks confirmed that his life and career defy simple definition. He is best known as an Emmy Award-winning designer, but he delighted Assembly Hall with tales from his journey from war-torn Saigon with his family as a toddler to his design work with performing artists like Gnarls Barkley and Cold Play.

Do emphasized that the road to a successful life is roundabout, and he filled his presentation with life lessons, urging the students to “lean into your weird, because what makes you weird makes you wonderful,” and to embrace rejection — “No means ‘Next Opportunity.’”

His own failures, including rejections from every college to which he applied, led to a chance encounter with a graphic designer that altered his path forever. Do’s design firm, Blind, has done work with a who’s who of clients, from Nike to Google to the NFL.

Today, Do has turned his attention to entrepreneurial pursuits and to empowering learners and doers to “do what they love without losing their soul.” His parting lesson — “making a living is good, but making a difference is better” — earned a standing ovation from the students.

A short time later, families gathered in Assembly Hall for a panel featuring members of the Exeter community focused on student health and wellbeing. Medical Director Katy Lilly, Dean of Residential Life Carol Cahalane, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Szu-Hui Lee and Associate Dean of Student Life Christina Breen fielded questions from parents about range of topics including creating healthy habits, balancing schoolwork and the resources available for students on campus,

Prompted by a question from the audience, Dr. Lilly discussed the importance of sleep in the overall health of students. She talked about her work in reminding students to create a routine that incorporates time for rest. “I’ve sat down with students and look at their schedules with them … and they really, truly need 28 hours in their day, it’s just not possible, so let’s prioritize.”

Cahalane addressed an often-asked question about how students are expected to balance the amount of schoolwork and if students are expected to complete all of their homework in a given night. “No,” she said. “because the assignments are not assigned to be done the night before for the next day. Not every class meets every day and the students need to plan ahead.” Referencing a video created by senior leaders for incoming students, Breen talked about the importance of utilizing free periods throughout the day to get ahead on that evening’s work. “Do two of your math problems, maybe you can’t get all seven of them done, but you can probably get a couple of them done,” she said.

Lee talked about her work in the mental health space noting that often times the first barrier in students seeking counseling is overcoming the stigma that persists with asking for help. “What we’re trying to recalibrate with the students is that the resources are coping strategies and wonderful things that you should to not just when you’re struggling, but as part of self-care.” Lee also suggested the parents in the audience do some of their own recalibration. “If your student says to you ‘you know, I’d like to go to counseling,’ your response shouldn’t be ‘why, what’s wrong?,’ your response ought to be ‘great, awesome, I’m so glad you get to talk to somebody.”