A shared experience

A revamped Exeter Equitable Experience program offers opportunity to build community.

Adam Loyd
November 1, 2022

Assistant Director of Equity and Inclusion Kevin Pajaro-Mariñez snaps a selfie with participants of the Equitable Exeter Experience program.

It’s a day before the official start of the school year, but the lively conversation spilling out of room 207 in Phillips Hall might have you believe the term is well underway. Inside, Instructor in English Courtney Marshall looks on as a prompt about pop music, meant to serve as an icebreaker, is bandied about by a group of students whose thaw around the Harkness table and with each other started days ago.

The class is part of a three-day orientation program for minority and LGBTQ+ students and students with high financial need known as Equitable Exeter Experience, or E3. After a three-year hiatus, the program has been revamped and revived by Director of Equity and Inclusion Stephanie Bramlett. “What the E3 program does is help students prepare for a school that may not necessarily be ready for them,” Bramlett says. “For some students, this is the most diverse place they’ve ever been. For other students this is the least diverse place they’ve ever been. So, what does it feel like to sit around the table and have the conversations about identity, which we’re asking them to do all the time, at a school like Exeter?”

After students in Marshall’s class exchange thoughts on singers Taylor Swift and Harry Styles, they dive into a dynamic discussion of the poem “Abandoned Farmhouse” by Ted Kooser. This practice time at the Harkness table is an important way to acclimate new students to what is an often unfamiliar way of learning. 

“One of the big levers that independent schools can pull is making sure that students are feeling like they are stakeholders in the institution before they even start classes."

Another key component of the program is pairing the 48 incoming students with  21 returning student mentors. “We’re trying to create long-standing relationships that hopefully will continue this year so the new students can have someone they can look to even past this program,” says mentor Evan Gonzalez ’22. “I think one of the things we’ve talked about the most are the resources available to new students that they might not find out about until later.”  Bramlett believes it’s crucial for students to have a full understanding of the access they have toresources like the Office of Multicultural Affairs and affinity groups. The more awareness students have of the opportunities around them, she says, the more agency they have to become involved: “One of the big levers that independent schools can pull is making sure that students are feeling like they are stakeholders in the institution before they even start classes.”

Like Gonzalez, mentor Sanisha Mahendra-Rajah ’23 hopes the program will provide students with a peer group as they settle into their new environment. “Having the E3 community as people who understand your background, you have that shared understanding going through Exeter,” she says. “The [new students] get to know the mentors and the faculty, but I think also in meeting each other, they’ve already met so many people with whom they have shared backgrounds and shared experiences.”

“This program is for the mentors as much as it is for the mentees,” Bramlett says. “This is the beauty of Exeter — everything that we do, we are growing together. So as mentors are leading, they are also learning,”

Having participated in the program, prep Layla Whitaker ’25 says she felt ready for the first weeks of classes and used what she learned to make others feel at home. “Because of E3 I was prepared and I knew where the buildings were and I knew people on campus. I was able to help others like new preps, and it always feels nice to know what you’re doing.”

At the program’s closing ceremony, mentors and mentees form a large circle on the lawn in front of Wetherell Dining Hall. The students take turns sharing what they’ve learned over the three days before tossing a ball of yarn to the next speaker. “I learned there are a lot of amazing people and a lot of amazing resources here,” says one student. “I learned so much from our Harkness conversations,” says another.

Before long, a web of colorful string crisscrosses the quad, connecting the group in that moment and beyond.  

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