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The Phillips Exeter School Experience


According to my own understanding, an expectation is a belief that something will happen- be it good or bad. Whatever you do, expectations are inevitable.  To avoid grave disappointment, expect little from people. If you want to excel exceedingly, expect the best, but always be prepared for the worst, as said by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. I had some expectations for my trip to Exeter. I was expecting to meet new people, to socialize, share ideas, and exchange learning experiences. I also expected to become more serious and more responsible. Interestingly enough, most of my expectations came true. Of course I met new people, shared thoughts and learned from them. Sadly, some my expectations were not fulfilled. I did not become serious; however, I realized I was serious enough for the time being.

Ekow JumpI had specific expectations for the passage of time and in sports. The total amount of time that I was supposed to spend there were five weeks. With this in mind, I expected the five weeks feel like five weeks in reality, it felt like two! I think I have heard of a saying that suggests time flies but I’m not sure when it does that or how or why, I’ll conduct more research on that. My time did not fly at all, it just disappeared! The reason why my time disappeared is that I had a lot of things to do like assignments, sports, socialize, play on a PS4 in my friend’s room and make noise, meander about aimlessly, just exploring the place, (which I never did till the last week) and eating ice-cream of course! By the last day, it felt like I had spent only 5 days at Exeter, and by the time I got back it felt like I had only spent a day. Now it feels like I haven’t been there at all but what I learnt is evidence of my presence in that school.

The Phillips Exeter Academy, established 1781, is a world-class school. Its total endowment is a whopping $1.1 billion, and 45% of its thousands of graduates enroll in Ivy League Schools. It boasts of 132 buildings, including 26 dormitories, spanning 672 acres (the size of 10752 tennis courts).

Whenever we think of Exeter, our minds are drawn to its method of education called “Harkness”. This mystical word that is thrown around a lot is basically a big word for student-centred learning. Rather than the teacher being the "sage on the stage", and the centre of all there is to know, the students are the drivers of the discussion and the teacher is merely a facilitator, steering the conversation in the right direction. I am of the opinion that Harkness, or a semblance of it, has exponentially more benefits for my fellow students than the lecture system. Every night students have to complete a reading assignment in order to be adequately equipped to contribute in the next day's discussions.Students Scenery

I was amazed at how friendly the people were at Phillips Exeter. The teachers, in this school, were so relatable, understanding, funny, loving and intellectual and this added a super to my fantastic summer holiday. They truly helped us feel welcome in this strange land, and embraced us to make our experience full, fun and fulfilling. Picture this; it was my first day of class at Exeter. I had arrived only the day before, I hadn’t fully settled in, and I was struggling to match impossible names to unfamiliar faces. Worse still, I had to navigate my way across the vast campus to reach my classes on time.

I was definitely at my wits end when I stumbled into my last class of the day, Neuropsychology, which according to the pamphlet was “a course which focused on understanding the brain on a neurological scale”. I stumble into the class just in time, and the first question my teacher addresses to the entire class is, “What is the difference between the mind and the brain?” There was a palpable sense of confusion that lay across our small class, like a thick blanket. So he asked a follow up question to give some clarification, "What is that sense of purpose we humans have, that separates us from animals, and makes us go above and beyond primal instincts?" This was a sensation he referred to as, “A sense of ‘I’ (I as in, me, myself and I). The clarification certainly left me even more stumped than the initial question, and it had me fearing what I had signed up for.

There was an awkward silence that enveloped the class, as no one answered the question immediately e and I hoped the teacher would just swoop in, save us the despair and give us the answer. However, he let the silence linger forever! That's just one of the typical characteristics of the Harkness Teaching Method; awkward silences that will only be broken when a student volunteers to speak. Teachers actually encourage us to embrace this silence, because it allows for time to think about your response.

Eventually tentative hands began to rise, each person uncertain about their answer. However before anyone got the chance to voice out their opinion Mr. Senott, our teacher, told everyone to kindly place their hands down because Harkness unlike in the traditional classroom setting you respectfully take turns speaking without having to seek permission, “Just like a discussion!” he said.

So throughout the lesson we discussed our responses to the question and it was in that class that I saw the true beauty of Harkness for the first time. Someone would share their view and everyone listened attentively and tried to process and understand what the person was bringing to the round table that every Harkness classroom has so all participants can face each other for equitable interaction.

Harkness was different to say the least. My initial reaction to Harkness was like "well this is ineffective, like how can no one be wrong and how will we ever reach a conclusion on what is correct." But I came to realize that the purpose of Harkness is not to make everyone feel good and feel smart but it teaches you to gather information on your own and build on each other's ideas and find the answers together as a class that way no one gets left behind. Harkness is designed not to merely give the student a fish but to teach the student to fish.

I believe this experience will stick with me because of there were was a myriad of  opportunities to express oneself and share a part of that self with the extremely diverse community that is the Phillips Exeter Academy. It is even more memorable because I actually took one of those opportunities, and anyone who knows me well understands how impressive that is. About three weeks into the five-week programme, an International Day Assembly was announced, where anybody would have the chance to teach the school about their country and culture. Upon hearing the announcement, I was sure I would never enter into that kind of limelight. However, my dear friend Claudette had entirely different plans, and sure enough, a mere week later, I found myself dancing shoki to Shatta Wale’s “Kε Kpuu, Kε Kpaa,” and doing the Kpanlogo in front of over 700 students.

If there is something I'm not going to forget, it’s my experience during Exeter Summer 2017 because it has made a whole world of difference in both my perspective of life and how I see the people around me. It gave me the chance to break even further out of my shell, and helped me understand that there is absolutely no harm in trying something new, no matter how daunting it may seem.  I have learnt that rather than letting fear sit on my freedom, I must spread my wings and see where they will take me, because the outcome might be life-changing. Simbarashe, Claudette, Ekow and Baaba I would like to thank the school management, and especially Ms Dzide-Tei for this fantastic opportunity to spread our wings.  We couldn't have asked for a better summer.

Students Together

By: Claudette Wilson, Simbarashe Damitoni, Ekow & Baaba Bentsi-Enchill