Harkness on holiday: Exeter Expeditions provide new avenues of discovery for adults

Through small group travel tours led by PEA faculty who are experts in their fields, Exeter Expeditions offers alumni the chance to engage in Harkness-style learning across the globe.  

Melanie Nelson
August 3, 2017
A street view of the theater district in the London's West End.

Participants in the London tour stayed in close proximity to the theater district in the city’s West End.

While Exeter has long extolled the merits of study-abroad experiences for students, it has also done a particularly good job over the last 25 years of engaging alumni, parents and friends in overseas adventures through Exeter Expeditions. Run by the Office of Institutional Advancement, Exeter Expeditions typically offers several travel programs in a given year, each lasting approximately seven to 10 days. Best of all, Exeter instructors with deep knowledge of the subject matter serve as guides for the duration of each trip, and the group size is kept small to ensure a Harkness-like experience.

Play all day: theater in London

New Hampshire Seacoast residents Karl and Paula Singer P’86, P’88, P’91, P’94, P’98 know Exeter, and Exeter Expeditions, very well. The parents of five Academy graduates, they’ve had ample opportunities to become acquainted with Exeter’s instructors, particularly those in the theater. “All five of our kids took Introductory Theater,” explains Karl, a semiretired physician who has played viola in the Academy’s orchestra for the past 44 years. “And when our youngest son, Andrew, was at Exeter, we met Sarah Ream [’75; P’09, P’11].” Years later, when the couple saw that Ream, who worked in theater in London for 12 years after she graduated from Yale, would be leading a trip there, the stars, as it were, seemed to be aligning. The Singers signed up for the 2014 junket, and ended up liking it so much that they returned again in 2016, both times with Ream as their guide.

The Singers found the group size and dynamic to be ideal for the many plays Ream had selected and for the Harkness discussions held each morning to discuss the previous evening’s show. “It’s fascinating how everyone sees the plays differently,” says Paula, “how everyone filters them through their own experiences.” What’s more, the Singers add, the range of productions was wonderfully varied on each trip, with 2014’s itinerary offering adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, and Moira Buffini’s Handbagged, a comedy about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Margaret Thatcher. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights was a highlight of the 2016 slate, along with William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Romeo and Juliet, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of the Bard.

Like the Singers, Dick Mansfield ’52 and wife, Ellie, have also been to London with Ream. “Sarah gave us a good mix,” says Mansfield, “and she brought a lot of value to the experience.” Importantly for the Mansfields, the Haymarket Hotel, where the group stayed on their trip, is located just a few minutes from Trafalgar Square — providing easy access not only to the West End theaters where many of the plays are performed, but also to the museums and pubs that became favorite destinations.

Beyond Ream’s knack for choosing riveting plays, say the Singers and Mansfields, she maintains strong professional connections to London-based playwrights, actors, directors and producers that add another dimension to each trip, whether that means having a personalized backstage tour of a film set, dinner with a stage and television actress, or a voice lesson at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.

Exonians reveled in Costa Rica’s natural wonders with birding expert and Biology Instructor Chris Matlack.

Taking flight: birding in Costa Rica

J.B. Nutter ’63 discovered Exeter Expeditions by way of his daughter, Laura, a member of Exeter’s class of 2005. As an Academy student, Laura took biology with Chris Matlack P’08, P’15, becoming so enthralled with the subject that she decided to pursue a career as a biology teacher. “Chris really inspired Laura in her work,” says Nutter, who reconnected with Matlack when the former was on campus for his 50th Exeter reunion in the spring of 2013. “Chris knew I was interested in birds,” explains Nutter, “so when he told me he and another long-time biology instructor, Rich Aaronian ’76, ’78, ’97 (Hon.); P’94, P’97, were going to be running a birding trip to Costa Rica the following March, I said, ‘Sign me up!’”

The group traveled mainly in Costa Rica’s northeastern Heredia Province, an area known for its spectacular bird species and, says Nutter, for the La Selva Biological Station, one of the world’s most important tropical research sites. The collective goal of those on the trip, which Nutter describes as “superbly organized,” was to see the quetzal, the region’s symbolic bird known for its bright plumage and long tail feathers, and a variety of larger parrot species. Matlack and Aaronian’s extensive knowledge, along with that of a local Costa Rican eco-tourism specialist who joined the group, led participants to both of these species and numerous others, with a few frogs and sloths thrown in for good measure.

“It was wonderful birding and huge amounts of fun,” says Nutter, who returned to Costa Rica with Matlack and Aaronian for the 2015 Exeter Expeditions trip. “Chris and Rich are fanatics about birding, so even during rest periods or evening cocktails, they would say, ‘C’mon, let’s go see some birds.’ In fact, during our very last night, when we were staying near the capital of San José, they had us out birding on the hotel grounds.”

In addition to the excitement of observing new bird species, says Nutter, he loved the chance to “get to know fellow Exonians” on his two trips to Costa Rica. A lifelong outdoorsman, he is delighted that Matlack and Aaronian are organizing another bio-adventure for next March to Costa Rica’s Osa region, where, he hears, one can see at least five species of wildcat.

While visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, Exeter alumni helped fold the colors at the end of the day.

Rediscovering heroes: key sites of the Great War

History lover and new Trustee President Tony Downer ’75; P’06, P’06, P’07 says he came away from his 2016 Exeter Expeditions trip to the significant sites of World War I with his “head spinning … in a good way.” Timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Great War, the program, adds Downer, was “very well thought out in terms of structure and content,” while the intimate group size of 16 people made for rich and engaging conversations.

Designed and led by Emeritus History Instructor Jack Herney ’46, ’69, ’71, ’74, ’92, ’95 (Hon.), the trip incorporates major battle sites, memorials and cemeteries in France and Belgium while simultaneously examining the war through a distinctly Exonian lens. Notes Downer: “Jack is a masterful storyteller, and what he did exceptionally well was draw a connection between Exeter and this story of global significance. For example, he had researched Harry Butters in the class of 1909, who perished in the war, and we were able to visit Butters’ grave site near the French village of Méaulte. By focusing on the Exeter thread, he helped the group further identify with the war and its human toll.”

Herney, too, thoroughly enjoys the trip, which gives him the opportunity to discuss with more seasoned “students” several of the most important sites along the Western Front. “The beauty of this tour is that the participants are old enough to have really studied World War I,” he says. “Plus, everyone in the group has a story — a grandfather or other family who served in the war or was somehow connected. That’s what makes it so moving.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2017 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.