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On the road for Summer Exonians

Elena Gosalvez-Blanco

Exeter Summer Director Elena Gosalvez-Blanco travels thousands of miles to share the magic of our century-old program.

November 6, 2018
Buffalo graze in the South Dakota Badlands.

I live in an endless summer. As we say goodbye to Exeter Summer students each August, we start updating next summer’s course catalogs and, by November, launch our online application. In between I travel the country to introduce our 100-year-old program to new audiences.

Exeter Summer brings together 760 students from over 50 countries and 40 states for five weeks of learning. Harkness conversations are even more enriching when those sitting around the table bring different cultures, languages, religions, points of view, experiences and backgrounds. Living in difference is not easy. Our students embrace the discomfort of being away from home and the familiar so they can learn from and with each other in our classrooms, studios and on our fields. They practice independence building a community with others who challenge what they know. Many “Summer Exonians” find us through teachers, friends, or relatives who attended. But every fall and winter I travel to find those who are unaware we exist.

Read about why Exeter Summer is a great option 

I’m just back from my first trip to Lakota country. In 2012, a 7th-grader named Kalleen who found us through Exeter’s admissions office was our first Lakota student. Exeter Summer has recruited Navajo students in the southwest for decades, but not Lakota. Since Kalleen, we have had Lakota students each year; eight attended in 2018. A total of 30 Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota are alumni of Exeter Summer, recommending our program to friends back home. I had to visit them.

When I landed in Rapid City, a huge sky surrounded the small airport. Driving through the moon-like landscapes of the Badlands and north to Standing Rock reservation, I saw more buffalo than cars, more wild goats than buildings and many more prairie dogs than people. I watched the sun rise on the Missouri River by Sitting Bull’s resting place. The first school I visited had barely 30 K-8 students. Not one had heard of a program like ours. At dusk, I crossed in to North Dakota to thank the sacred Standing Rock. Legend says it is the petrification of a woman with her child. She created unity.

I visited 12 schools, driving almost 1,000 miles through three reservations to talk to hundreds of kids and teachers in all types of public and some independent schools. I visited a girls school in Rosebud that was established to support young women when that community became known for teen suicides. In Pine Ridge, the dean of students of a large K-12 school mentioned many grandmothers raise their grandchildren because of epidemic substance abuse. I met middle-school activists providing positive role models for boys and talked with tribal elders about how new curriculum tries to reconnect youth with Lakota values, culture, history and language that younger generations were losing. Despite these efforts and the work of great educators, the area I visited has just a 50 percent high school graduation rate. According to Teach for America’s executive director in South Dakota, of the students who do graduate high school, fewer than 30 percent go to college.  

For some of my visits, I was joined by Lakota Summer Exonians who spoke about becoming confident, learning to be independent, and making friends from across the world. They said Exeter’s classes are very hard, but everyone helps you. They all said they plan to attend college. They are inspired to study and work to improve the reservations.

Students listened intently, asked for brochures, and smiled when they recognized native students in our video. In their eyes I saw the spark of the possible, a thirst for the new. Many thanked me with handshakes, proud that I had come so far for them, that someone thought they too deserve the best education, or just a chance. Those intrigued by the challenge of an opportunity filled my yellow legal pad with their contact information.

I was leaving the last school when a teacher stopped me to say Kalleen is now a sophomore at Dartmouth College. I drove to the airport on the straight line that parts the sky in two thinking about the future of Lakota students and how to raise funds to support more of them. Over the next few months I will travel to Boston, New York, New Jersey, around New Hampshire and to the Navajo Nation and ask our former students to help us spread the word about Exeter Summer. We will invite youth from as many quarters as possible to gather around our tables so they can find the best we have to offer them: the difference in each other.

Elena Gosalvez-Blanco is the director of Exeter Summer and a modern languages instructor.


Explore: Opportunity, Exeter Summer