Person and path

How Exeter supports students in their identity building.

By
Nicole Pellaton, illustrations by Davide Bonazzi
February 15, 2021
girl holding map with lines that extend in many directions

The question “Who am I?” is central to adolescence. The process of exploring that question with authenticity and goodness is complex and highly individualized. As the world becomes increasingly global and fast-paced, so do the challenges to identity. You need only look back to 2020’s cascade of crises and polarizations to appreciate the urgent impacts on adolescents who are in key stages of forming their identities.

“To be a teenager is to figure out who you are, and that is something that is fundamental to the work of secondary school education,” Religion Instructor Tom Simpson says. “How do you become a full person? How do you become a person who’s not only going to have the technical skills to thrive and succeed in today’s world, but also have the integrity and the sense of self, and the confidence, and the type of relationships, and an awareness of the ways in which our world functions, to be truly who you are and let those technical skills be used for something good?”

Supporting students as they begin the lifelong journey of discovering who they are, and building self-awareness into that process so that they may continue to thrive, is a key theme of the updated Academy mission and values released last September by Principal William Rawson ’71; P’08. Exeter’s mission is to “Unite goodness and knowledge and inspire youth from every quarter to lead purposeful lives.” Five timeless values outline Exeter’s commitment to provide the foundation from which Exonians can become productive citizens of the world. One value, “Youth Is the Important Period,” specifically addresses identity work through its emphasis on instilling a “lasting capacity to nurture one’s self, develop a sense of one’s own potential and consider one’s place in the larger whole” in order for students to develop “their values and passions and the agency needed to carry these forward.”

In these pages we take a look at some of the ways Exeter supports identity-building, including some recent innovations, through the lens of one student’s experience and in conversations with faculty. In future articles, we will continue to explore identity- building for self and in relation to being part of a diverse community.

man rowing a boat

Discovery

“Something I love about Exeter is how clubs and classes feed into each other and build off of each other to help you figure out who you are,” says Anne Brandes ’21. The club that captured this senior’s interest, starting in prep year, was The Exonian, the Academy’s student-run newspaper. In December, she completed her year as editor-in-chief.

Brandes was drawn to The Exonian as a way to make an impact on her community, but as a self-identified introvert, she initially found the work of interviewing daunting. Over time, she acclimated and made important discoveries. “It was great that I could write and I was learning how to write. That was a really significant moment for me,” she says. The other discovery was people. “I can say this confidently as a senior: The point of Exeter isn’t really to get everything right or to have your homework done perfectly or be the most well-prepared when you go into class. If you’re that person, that’s excellent and I definitely recognize why it feels comfortable to be that person, but there’s a lot to be said for taking the extra moments. … If you don’t spend time talking to people, you’re going to miss out on a significant part of Exeter.”

A highlight of Brandes’ work at The Exonian is the “Since 1878” project, an investigation of the newspaper’s coverage of racism at the Academy. Brandes and the editors started formulating the idea in June 2020, after the police killing of George Floyd ignited outrage around the world, and as the Academy was announcing initiatives to institutionalize the practice of anti-racism. “We felt that there was a dissonance between running anti-racist articles now without acknowledging how we’ve contributed to racism and documented racism in the past,” Brandes explains. “The Exonian was also having some serious conversations about its own racism much more recently than 1878 — more like 2020, 2019 — because of the lack of Black and Latinx voices in the newsroom.” Over the summer, a core group of writers researched and wrote the pieces that comprise the series, an amount of work that Brandes considers both stunning and indicative of her peers’ commitment to the Exeter community. To publish the series, Exonian staff spent weeks fact-checking, then Brandes and a small cadre of Exonian editors worked from 11 a.m. to dorm check-in for five days in November. “Hopefully we can … continue to acknowledge the truths that are part of the Exeter community and part of The Exonian that are harder or uncomfortable to acknowledge,” she says.

“The faculty members of the Religion Department see identity formation as a process, not an outcome. They observe closely and use a variety of techniques to assess how students are progressing along the path of greater self-realization.”

It was in a class with History Instructor Leah Merrill ’93 during fall of lower year that Brandes realized “what good writing looks like.” She attributes much of her writing progress to Merrill’s thoughtful comments, which affected Brandes deeply. The research paper from that term holds pride of place in her desk drawer. “I look at that paper and I realize, ‘I can do this. Mrs. Merrill believes in me.’”

Another key to Brandes’ development was the bookending of her work at The Exonian with two religion courses: "Faith and Doubt" in prep year and "Epistemology" in senior fall, both taught by Religion Department Chair Hannah Hofheinz. (Science Instructor John Blackwell co-teaches Epistemology.) As her focus on journalism increased, Brandes became acutely aware of the ethics of reporting. Immersion in the Epistemology course readings (a 2,000-year retrospective of knowledge, from Plato and the Western philosophical tradition, to the scientific revolution, postmodernism and modern-day authors), and in particular a 2017 meditation by Math Instructor Jeff Ibbotson on the topic of finding truths, led to a breakthrough. “I realized that I didn’t believe in moral relativism, that I did think that pushing for objectivity was an incredibly important part of journalism … that there are such things as moral truths and that some ways of going about the world are objectively right and objectively wrong,” Brandes explains. She is well aware of the difficulty of achieving objectivity, “especially in historically white newsrooms,” and feels that the Epistemology course had an “immediate impact on my work in journalism, especially because as an editor, ethical decisions are the name of the game.”

compass

Over her years at Exeter, Brandes pushed herself beyond her comfort zone many times and found the “moments of discomfort” to be “some of the biggest moments of growth.” “The true, amazing part of what we’re doing here is the community we’re in, the people who make it up and the stories they have,” she says. “I think that’s a collective experience that Exonians feel about Exeter: just this tremendous gratitude. You’re not feeling comfortable really until you’re about to leave, because that means that you’re constantly trying to improve yourself while you’re at the Academy.”

For Brandes the “end goal” is “being a listener above everything else, being respectful, regardless of whether or not you agree with the position at hand, and acknowledging the unique context that everybody is in before they enter that Harkness table. … [These] are the moments where the Harkness table becomes the most hard and dangerous, but also the moments where the Harkness table has the most to give back.”

Tradition

All of Exeter’s academic departments share the focus on helping students develop values, identity and purpose, but Hofheinz feels that the Religion Department is exceptionally positioned because of its course catalog, which the department chair compares favorably to that of “any high school or college in terms of the robustness of the offerings and their coherence.” “We get to explore how traditions around the globe throughout time have helped people with that process, not just here now, but everywhere and always,” Hofheinz says. “The wisdom traditions, the religious traditions, the philosophical traditions, ethical traditions, all have massive archives of some of the most committed and beautiful people, writings, artifacts, ideas, dilemmas, puzzles, games: everything that we get to explore with the students and let them experience the possibilities within those different languages. … This allows students different registers into which to enter into this conversation and build on it. What does it mean to live a meaningful life? But also what type? What is meaning? What are you here for? Why are you at all?”

The faculty members of the Religion Department see identity formation as a process, not an outcome. They observe closely and use a variety of techniques to assess how students are progressing along the path of greater self-realization. Ultimately, Hofheinz hopes to see students move toward a state of “coherence” where they are able to achieve authenticity and learn to “hold the whole — contradictions and dilemmas included within [themselves] — and be able to also recognize that other people are doing that as well. … Part of forming yourself is being able to have that coherence.”

“I realized that I didn’t believe in moral relativism … that there are such things as moral truths and that some ways of going about the world are objectively right and objectively wrong.”

“How do I know when they’re doing the work?” Hofheinz asks. “Can they get traction with seeing themselves? Can they get traction with saying not only, ‘This is what it is, but this is why I care.’ Or, ‘This is what I believe, but I see that there are alternatives.’ Or, ‘I used to say this, but I realized that I really said that because that’s what I always heard, and I’m not so sure about that anymore.’ Or, ‘I don’t know.’ … To me that’s one of the greatest successes at the end of a class: when a student says, ‘I don’t know, but I do know that this is a question that I’m interested in.’ … That indicates to me very concretely that they have moved from that immediate, intuitive, sure response that is not yet thought out, and there’s a reflection of the middle years that they’re moving through to becoming more of an autonomous grown-up.”

“With preps and lowers, there are moments when it seems they’re trying to figure out if the idea they hold really matters,” observes Religion Instructor Austin Washington, who came to Exeter in large part because he wanted to teach at a school where “the role of an educator is understood to be in many respects all about identity-building or -shaping in some way.” In contrast, he sees uppers and seniors who are “more convinced of their ideas, and their ability to disagree and sustain their opinions, and allow them to be enriched, but not fundamentally changed. Those are some of the most exciting moments of identity development that I’ve witnessed,” he says, “when students understand that their ideas matter and that it doesn’t make them a bad person to have strong opinions about something, but it does matter how they share those opinions.”

Hofheinz and the other members of the department see Harkness as an ideal environment for identity formation. “That’s the strength of Harkness: It allows that dialectical movement between an individual doing their own wrangling and wrestling, and the teacher being able to interact with them one-on-one through written assignments and individual conferences and conversations, but then really emphasizing that it’s in the students’ mutual interactions that they’re pushing each other to think slightly more and to come at it from different directions,” Hofheinz says. “It’s in that community work that the individual becomes possible.”

Intention

Self-authoring is the name of a new program developed by the College Counseling Office that asks lowers to consider who they are through a series of conversations and written reflections, all based on identity-related questions, such as: Who influences you and how? or, Where are you happiest? These forays into explicit identity work have the double benefit of initiating the college process with a focus on and understanding of self, as opposed to societal trends or external pressures, and introducing the college counselors to younger students in a friendly and supportive way.

“Self-authorship is a way of empowering adolescents,” explains Dean of College Counseling Betsy Dolan. “Being self-actualized and being content with not just who you are, but the fact that you can see yourself growing and that you’re going to continue to grow — you can make decisions that are informed.”

Dolan was inspired to start the program after reading research by Marcia Baxter Magolda, a professor emerita at Miami University of Ohio and a leader in self-authorship theory. Recognizing a clear link between self-authorship and encouraging intentionality in Exeter students, Dolan introduced the concept to her team. Counselors Courtney Skerritt and Jeff Wong developed a curriculum specific to Exeter lowers.

The program launched as a pilot with new lowers in the winter term of the 2019-20 academic year. Partnering with the Health and Human Development Department, college counselors, in pairs, visited several sessions of "HHD240: Thriving in Community," a course that focuses on developing decision-making skills based on purpose and thoughtfulness. The two-session program culminated in a Harkness discussion about fundamental questions: What does Exeter mean to you? Who are you at Exeter?

“Counseling comes in around that time to say, how do we modify or create new markers? Let’s explore all aspects of who you are beyond the measures you are used to.”

“Every class was different,” Wong says. “It usually started with the concrete steps of what is Exeter. But then it became so much more, and that’s where you’d see people jump in and say, ‘I had a very different experience choosing to come here,’ or, ‘I’ve had a very different experience since I’ve gotten here.’ Some people talked about it from the 30,000-foot level of what it means to them or their families. For others, it was much more on the ground: ‘This is a change from where I grew up.’”

Skerritt observed in the self-authoring Harkness conversations a clear willingness among students to “unpack” identity preconceptions, and an openness to new points of view, including those brought by students from around the world and from a tremendous diversity of personal experiences. She sees particular value in exploding some of the negative impacts of social media on identity-building: “With social media, it’s really easy to listen to the voice that is your own echo in terms of political beliefs, background and interests. But you don’t know who you’re going to be with at the Harkness table. … I see Harkness as the anti-social media.”

Although the college counselors planned to reconnect with the lowers during spring term and again in the fall, the coronavirus pandemic put a temporary halt to those efforts. The college counselors are looking forward to rolling out the full program once in-person classes resume.

“The best thing that could happen is students have this experience over the winter and spring terms,” Dolan adds. “We meet with them in the fall to remind them of it. And it informs their college process to such a degree that it doesn’t matter where they go. They know they can feel good about their person going forward, whatever the adventure is.”

Thriving

Exeter’s Counseling and Psychological Services team provides another framework for identity formation based primarily on one-to-one meetings between a counselor and a student. The keys to creating a supportive environment for identity work, says Szu-Hui Lee, director of CAPS, are providing a “safe place, trusted adults, trusted relationships so that students can explore different aspects of themselves and know they’re still cared for, and know they are not judged.” For some Exonians, Lee says, finding their voice can involve healing from experienced trauma. “What we know about trauma work is healing starts when people feel safe,” she says.

CAPS offers free counseling to Exeter students while they are on campus. During the pandemic, as some states have loosened licensure regulations and allowed out-of-state counselors to provide care, CAPS has been able to offer remote counseling to an increasing number of students who live outside of New Hampshire. The five counselors can provide a level of service that is unheard of in public schools and even at many universities, where individualized appointments can be strictly limited, Lee says. “We can see students every week if there is a need, from the time they are preps to the time that they’re seniors. … What does that mean? Some of the things that people might unpack in their adulthood or in college, our students have the opportunity to start a little earlier because they have these resources.”

Lee’s advice to students is: Explore, explore, explore. “This is the time to go down every aisle in the grocery store and check everything out,” she says. “See what’s of interest. Discover things that are different and unfamiliar. And find joy in what you know and love.”

The hoped-for result of this exploration is to anchor habits during four very formative years. “Studies have shown that if you form habits at an early age, that includes between 14 and 18, you’re more likely to have those habits stay with you as an adult,” Lee says. “And it doesn’t end when you graduate from Exeter. … Positive self-identification means that you allow yourself the permission to continue to evolve. … At 24, when you decide to change your mind about something you thought you were pretty darn sure about at 14, that’s OK.”

For many students, Exeter can be a bit of a jolt. “A lot of our students’ identity is grounded in their academics,” Lee says. “They’ve been on this journey to get ahead, get to Exeter, with the hopes that a great college would be next on their trajectory. They’re following markers that they themselves, or society, or their families have set for them.” When those markers are missed — students don’t get the straight-A’s they are used to, or they get injured and can’t perform at their sport — they can falter and wonder about their own identity, sense of purpose and direction. “Counseling comes in around that time to say, how do we modify or create new markers? Let’s explore all aspects of who you are beyond the measures you are used to.”

Lee explains: “I often tell students, think of a stool. There are three legs to a stool to hold it steady. When one is broken off, you can probably still lean on the other two. Healthy self-identification is making sure you know your identity comes from a collection of things that make you who you are. So, you have to make sure to have a lot of legs of different things, so that when something in your life isn’t going well, you’re still getting feedback from other things that matter to you, and holding steady. … That’s how you thrive: You have other things to lean on.”

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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