Flora, fauna, first-years

How a new orientation program is helping the Exeter community more fully embrace Harkness learning and living.

Melanie Nelson
October 27, 2017
Dan Hummel leads his group of preps in an orientation activity at the Browne Center.

Dan Hummel leads his group of preps in an orientation activity at the Browne Center.

It’s a crystal-clear Sunday morning in early September as the sound of wheels on crushed gravel slowly becomes audible. Soon, four long, lumbering First Student school buses roll through the gates of the Browne Center for Innovative Learning. Situated on a gorgeous wooded property adjoining the Great Bay Estuary in Durham, the center, just 20 minutes from Exeter’s campus, is a renowned experiential education site affiliated with the University of New Hampshire.

As the buses’ doors creak open, 203 students, all members of the class of 2021, spill out. Carrying backpacks and bagged lunches, they amble down to an open field. Here they are greeted warmly by a cadre of purple-clad Browne Center staff members, many of whom work full-time elsewhere as guidance counselors or social workers. Each is considered a master facilitator, fluent in the language of engagement.

Instructed to gather in a circle, the preps nervously assemble. A lanky, stubbled facilitator commences the program by introducing the day’s leitmotif. Thrusting a pointer finger into the air indicates a brilliant idea, he says, while a spread palm is a proxy for an open mind. Pursing his lips and letting his finger fall to his waiting palm, he makes a warbly whistling noise like a spent bottle rocket falling back to earth. “That’s the sound of a great idea meeting an open mind.”

Next, and as if to replicate a Harkness classroom, the students are divided into groups of 12. Interspersed among them are Exeter instructors and a handful of alumni from the class of 1971. The latter, inspired and organized by classmates Sam Perkins and Bill Rawson, have joined forces with the class of 2021 to pilot a symbiotic partnership intended to build over the next four years as the class of ’71 prepares to celebrate its 50th reunion in the same year that the class of ’21 graduates.

Anna Jacobowitz ’21 and fellow preps put themselves in numerical order using hand signals and giant playing cards.

All have journeyed to the Browne Center to participate in an enhanced orientation program meant to foster community and collaboration before the fall term is officially underway. Back at campus and over at Rye Harbor State Park, lowers, uppers and seniors are engaging in their own class-specific team-building activities. The programming, new and welcome at Exeter, has been made possible by the Class of 2018 Exonians Connect and Explore Fund, established by an anonymous donor this year, and is meshing with the Academy’s broader efforts to create a more holistic learning community.

Building class spirit and community

For Dean of Students and Science Instructor Melissa Mischke, the work of planning this year’s orientation program began last spring, just about the same time that members of the class of 2021 were notifying the Admissions Office of their intention to attend. “When news of the gift was shared, we put together a proposal highlighting ways that we might open school differently,” she explains. “We do a lot of dorm-based events at Exeter, but not a lot of class-based programming, and especially not to the scale of a whole day. This gift gave us the opportunity to rethink orientation through the lenses of class and school identity.”

With tremendous support from her own team and from Director of Student Activities Joanne Lembo P’21 and staff, Mischke and company set about brainstorming opening-of-school activities that might be particularly valuable and engaging for each class. As an example, she cites the upper class: “Uppers traditionally come in with this mindset that the year ahead is going to be really challenging and stressful, so I was interested in exploring how to rejigger that message. That led to us inviting Ed Gerety, a local youth speaker and leadership trainer, to come to campus for a day to work with the class of 2019.” Lowers, meanwhile, participated in team building and problem-solving through the interactive Playfair program, while seniors, in collaboration with the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, spent the day at Rye Harbor State Park picking up trash and savoring the seaside.

Prep Cheikh Fiteni watches a Browne Center facilitator introduce a team-building game.

Mischke stresses that these new, class-specific orientation activities are intended to set the tone for the academic year ahead and, through carefully designed and facilitated programming, “instill in students a sense of respect for themselves, one another, and the greater living and learning community of which they are an important part.”


With a chorus of crickets as background music and little clouds of Deep Woods OFF! billowing into the blue sky, the smaller groups disperse with their Browne Center facilitators. Each is led to a spot on the grounds that allows for quiet and privacy as the team-building exercises get underway. Through a series of fun and thought-provoking games that vary depending upon the group leader and dynamics, initial trepidation soon gives way to sharing and laughter. “We always begin with activities that are choice-based — high-engagement, but low-consequence,” explains the Browne Center’s youth and student programs coordinator, Jeff Frigon. “It gives the kids a chance to get moving and be silly before we delve into more complex programming.” Frigon and his colleagues speak from experience. Now 40 years old, the Browne Center is considered an international leader in hands-on, innovative learning. Adds Frigon: “The brain science is just catching up to what we have seen realized in our work here, which is that physical movement, laughter and appropriate contact all release healthy brain chemicals that, in turn, reduce anxiety and increase learning and connection.”


For English Instructor Patty Burke Hickey, who teaches prep English, the Browne Center program was “fabulous” for the way it united the students in her group and primed them for the journey ahead, including a Harkness demonstration in Fisher Theater the following day and their first full day of classes.

“The Browne Center staff really did their research, and we had this amazing group leader named Greg who led us in activities that required more and more teamwork throughout the morning,” Burke Hickey explains. “He really got the students working together to problem-solve for an end goal.

English Instructor Patty Burke Hickey enjoys some laughs with her orientation group.

“Later, at lunch, he gave the group a big sheet of paper and asked students to write about how what we’d been doing that morning might translate to what we’d be doing around the Harkness table in the days to come. Everyone contributed to the diagram, and Greg was good about asking for concrete details to support the ideas that were offered. I think the students came away with the sense that they would be learning together at Exeter, rather than just working together. In fact, I think they were oriented in the truest sense of the word to how we learn in a community, and that they will be able to apply those lessons to their lives outside the classroom, too.”


Andrew McTammany loves teaching chemistry at Exeter, but with classes mainly populated by lowers, he seldom gets a chance to interact with first-year students. This is why he was delighted to participate in the prep program at the Browne Center. “I don’t work with ninth-graders at all, so it was really good to get to know students I don’t come into contact with on a daily basis,” he explains. A 2004 graduate of the Academy, McTammany liked the way Browne’s facilitators incorporated the Harkness philosophy into their team-building activities and ropes course. “I thought it was a great bonding experience for the preps,” he says. “In addition to bringing them together as a class, I think it instilled the values of Harkness and inclusion in a setting where the students could internalize them and then bring them back to school. Each element the facilitator introduced built upon the previous one, so that the students first got to know each other, then built up trust, and by the end were completely comfortable together. It was very well executed and awesome to see.”

Multiplicities and reverberations 

“I thought it was brilliant,” enthuses Classics Department Intern Noël Grisanti of the Browne Center program. Having arrived at the Academy just a few weeks prior, Grisanti was, like the first-year students with whom she engaged at Browne, still adjusting to the cadence of life at Exeter. “I think it provided a great opportunity to lay the foundation for the class of 2021, and I feel like the trip is going to become a touchstone for the class as they go through Exeter,” she says. “I think friendships that may not have emerged otherwise could come from this experience.”

Preps begin their day in a circle, with an exercise that demonstrates when a great idea meets an open mind.

According to Grisanti, the “from every quarter” ethos also was much in evidence. “Just in my group alone, which was a random sampling of preps, we had at least one student from every continent, including Australia. I love that this is part of the fabric from day one. To have that kind of representation is remarkable, as is the fact that at Exeter, it’s completely normal.”

Ozzy Gomez-Santana ’21 was brimming with anticipation as he disembarked his bus at the Browne Center. Just a few days earlier, he’d made the journey to Exeter from his home in Delaware, and while he’d already connected with a few fellow preps in his dormitory and classes, at Browne he noticed many as-yet-unseen faces. As the morning activities got going, however, that soon began to change.

Sam Perkins ’71 with Oona Turner ’21 during orientation.

“I definitely made new friends out there,” Gomez-Santana says. “Plus, I got to know my class as a whole. The Browne Center staff made us comfortable, even during activities that required us to be in close proximity to each other. In fact, at one point, I had to hug another person to complete a game, but because of the way they had prepared us, it wasn’t awkward. There was a strong emphasis on cooperation.”

Speaking of cooperation, Gomez-Santana is now part of a study group composed of new friends he made at the Browne Center. “We give each other positive reinforcement,” he explains. “I’m meeting up with them later today.”

Caroline Huang’s first few days at Exeter were a bit more fraught than most. As residents of Houston’s Meyerland community, she and her family were still sorting out the damage inflicted on their home by Hurricane Harvey when the time came to transport her, and older sister Grace ’18, to New Hampshire. After busily outfitting her dorm room and familiarizing herself with the Exeter campus, Huang says she was then ready for a change of pace, which is exactly what the orientation program at Browne offered.

“I went into my Browne Center group not knowing anyone,” she says. “Yet soon I knew their names, their hobbies and even what excited them about Exeter. We built a strong and tight connection that day.”

Huang continues: “I also thought it was extremely interesting that some members of the class of 1971 joined us. Mr. Nat [Nathaniel G. Clark ’71], who was part of our group, told us what we could expect at Exeter, and what his time there was like. He shared that one of the best things he’d learned at Exeter was how to communicate with people, and advised us to try everything, but also to manage our time wisely — to balance schoolwork with our social lives.

“What I took away from the day was that even the smallest things, and the things that you think are unrelated, can help you connect with people, and that collaborating strengthens the group. After orientation, I felt like, ‘This isn’t over … a new journey is about to begin.’”   


Sam Perkins and Bill Rawson are co-presidents of the Exeter class of 1971. Along with four other Academy classmates and one spouse, they made the early morning trek to the Browne Center on Sept. 10, in order to join the prep class for its day of experiential activities. Their participation, conceived by Rawson and roundly endorsed by Perkins and others, including the Academy, was the starting point for what they hope will become a special connection between their class and the class of 2021, culminating in four years with the former’s 50th reunion and the latter’s graduation.

While the particulars of this pairing are still percolating and coalescing, Perkins says he and his classmates view it as a way to get to know current students and to see the Exeter community of today through their eyes. Likewise, he hopes that “students might enjoy getting an historical perspective from alumni who were here many decades before them.” Meanwhile, he, Rawson and the other members of ’71 who joined the preps at Browne had the opportunity to begin their social experiment.

“I thought it was great,” Perkins says of the programming. “I was impressed by the facilitators and the way they drew out the lessons of each activity and connected them to challenges and opportunities.” And although Perkins wasn’t surprised by the intelligence of the students in his group, he emphasizes how impressed he was with their collaborative tendencies. “There were natural leaders, but no one was dominating the activities. Rather, there was a strong sense of respect and of trying to be inclusive. It was a very mature dynamic.”

Adds classmate and fellow participant Ted Gilchrist: “The preps are a real delight, and it is such a wonderful time to catch them, just when they are on the brink of so much change. Their frame of reference and experience is still middle school, and we find them just when they are stepping onto the stage of their new lives.

“It was so wonderful being treated like one of the gang, as we swung around on ropes and balanced on pallets. At lunch, they were more than just polite and welcoming, they seemed so genuinely curious about what it was like ‘in the old days.’ It was bittersweet having to leave them. I envy their teachers.”

Beyond enjoying their interactions with the preps as they engaged in the Browne Center’s programming, Perkins says he and his classmates had some important realizations during the program: “I think many people, myself included, deal with the challenge of fearing failure, so it was great seeing students do things outside of their comfort zones and pushing through perceived limits.” The value of teamwork was also reinforced. “I’m a person who tends to want to do things by myself,” Perkins says. “So it was good to be reminded that certain things cannot be done in isolation — that sometimes you need everyone’s participation in order for something to work.”

Sketches from the Browne Center

Meet some of the facilitators who made orientation so rewarding

Tricks of the trade

Beth Sayers is the kind of buoyant, efficient person you’d want with you in a moment of crisis. Upbeat, yet centered, she is a modern-day Mary Poppins, her carpet bag a large, orange paint bucket from which she pulls the gadgets of her trade. To begin, though, she asks her charges to pretend they are windup toys. Clasping hands, team members move their arms in wide circles, spring-loading for the work ahead. “What will you contribute to the group today?” she inquires of each student. “An open mind and bright ideas,” chirps one prep. “Good listening,” says another, more reservedly. “Great,” Sayers says. “Your job as we go through the day is to reinforce for your windup partner the skills they’ve said they’ll bring to our work and to compliment them when they put those skills into action.”


With his shock of white hair and sparkling eyes, Dan Hummel is avuncular in a way that is eminently welcoming. A seasoned middle school guidance counselor, he is proficient in the idiom of teens, including the nonverbal nuances of the eye roll and sigh. For his first small-group activity, he holds up a hacky sack that has been decorated to resemble a tiny planet Earth and instructs his students to try to estimate how long it will take to pass the sack to and fro, such that each prep receives and tosses it one time. “Before you throw the ball, you must thank the person who threw it to you, and then say the name of the person to whom you are tossing it,” he adds. Wildly varied guesses as to how long this exercise might take are posited, until Hummel encourages the team to come to consensus. “What does consensus mean?” he asks. Silence, and then someone murmurs “agreement.” “Right!” Hummel exclaims. “Now, don’t forget the eye contact. It signifies ‘I’m right here with you.’”

The vernacular of fellowship

Julia Stifler is studying to become an adventure therapist, a field that combines individual and group therapy with the kind of nature-based experiential learning the Browne Center promulgates. Wearing a baseball cap over her short hair, she might be mistaken for an older Exeter student, and her steady, authentic demeanor appears to put her preps at ease.

The activity she is guiding her team through involves enacting four different social scenarios that could conceivably unfold in the hallways of an Academy classroom building, and she unpacks them sequentially, in easily digestible bits. “First, let’s pretend you are walking to class with your head down because you are nervous about talking to people.” The group follows suit, its members swerving en masse to avoid tripping one another. “Now do it again, but this time make eye contact and give a little nod,” Stifler encourages. Up next: make eye contact, smile, keep going.

For the final scene, Stifler instructs her preps to pretend they are encountering a best friend whom they haven’t seen in five years. A melee of high-fives, hugs and salutations ensues, ending with two boys dropping to the ground where they proceed to undulate in unison, as if performing in a breakdancing contest. The group breaks out in laughter. “How do we honor the fact that people have different styles and comfort levels?” Stifler asks, refocusing the team. “What would you like your community to look like when you return to school for the year?”


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