Joanne Lembo

Joanne Lembo sitting outside in front of the Academy Center.

“We steer students and give them tools for success."

Director of Student Activities Joanne Lembo is living proof that a liberal arts education can take you anywhere. At Bennington College in Vermont, she majored in fine art photography and architecture and spent countless hours working in the student activities office, where her diligence was noted by the director. In her senior year, after returning from a field-work program in Chiapas, Mexico, that same director asked Lembo to accompany her to a national conference, which ultimately led to a job offer.

“My first year out of college, I was an assistant hall director at [a dormitory] at the University of New Hampshire and worked half-time in the Student Activities Office there,” explains Lembo. As luck would have it, Sarah Binger James '81 was working on her master’s degree in mathematics at UNH and working in the housing office with Lembo. When an assistant director position opened up in Exeter's Student Activities Office, where her mother-in-law Barbara James ’74, ’85, ’93 (Hon.) was then serving as director, the younger James encouraged her friend to apply. Lembo joined the Academy in the fall of 1996.

When she arrived, Exeter was at a crossroads. “It was still very much a sink-or-swim environment,” Lembo explains. Four years later, she was promoted to director of student activities and tasked by the principal’s staff, she says, with “striking a better balance between Exeter’s academics and its co-curricular offerings … basically making Exeter more fun.”

Two decades on, thanks to a growing understanding of the importance of student wellness, Exeter indeed feels like a more supportive, balanced place. “There are more clubs and leadership opportunities,” Lembo explains. “The community as a whole is much more aware of the needs of students, whether it’s sleep or learning differences.”

To complement these cultural shifts and improvements, the Academy also made better, more versatile physical space a priority for student activities. “When I arrived, we were in Davis Library,” says Lembo. The building, while beautiful, had a labyrinthine layout that did not accommodate a natural flow of foot traffic or organic student connections.

As the former Thompson Science Building was renovated into the Phelps Academy Center, Lembo’s architecture background came in handy. “I could read the plans and blue prints, and was able to make suggestions,” she recalls. Centrally located, and uniting under one roof the Grill and Post Office, plus Student Activities, ESSO, a day-student lounge and ample club space, the building was an instant hit.

As do many Exeter employees, Lembo became wholly invested in the community and the well-being of her students. “I think I have been on every diversity committee for the past 20 years,” she muses, including, most recently, as a co-chair of the team that designed the position description for Exeter’s new dean of equity, diversity and inclusion. She, wife Lee, and their daughter also lived for 12 years in Hoyt Hall, where Lembo served as dorm head for several years.

As she contemplates her 20-plus years at Exeter, Lembo is thankful for the evolution of student activities at the Academy. “What I like most,” she says, “is when a student walks into my office with an idea, and because of the resources and structure we have here, nine times out of 10, I have the ability to teach that student how to reach his or her goal.”

Indeed, Lembo and the other members of her department consider teaching to be central to their work. “As with a Harkness conversation, we steer students and give them tools for success, but we don’t give them all of the answers. For example, rather than automatically providing funding, we teach students how to write grants. Everything we do is focused on educating and empowering students.”