The proctor-prep connection

January 22, 2015

Margaret Kraus ’18, proctor Jordan ”Joey” Bolden ’15 and Jolina Dimen ’16 in Dunbar Hall

How role models impact the Exeter experience for students

By Daneet Steffens ’82

When Jordan ”Joey” Bolden ’15 arrived at Exeter as a prep, she hadn’t been away from her family or home for longer than a weekend. Coming to stay for several months at a time in a place where she knew nobody, she recalls, ”was really strange.” But then something wonderful occurred.

”The first thing that happened when I came in to Dunbar,” she says, ”was that the proctors came and took my bags up the stairs and they introduced themselves to me. They were just so nice; that’s what I needed. It wasn’t even overwhelming — it was just a rush of welcoming in a warm environment, and I was so happy that I thought, ’I want to do this when I’m older. I want to make kids feel like they are welcome, like they want to be here. The dorm is going to become their home and it’s good to make it their home the second they step in the door.’ That’s why I wanted to be a proctor.”

Then-senior Lisa Scott ’12 quickly became one of Joey’s favorite proctors. ”She always had her door open to help me with homework whenever I needed it, or just to talk,” Joey explains. ”She really became my older sister, and I never had one before. Being able to talk to somebody, especially somebody who had already been here for several years, who had been through the same things I was going through, whether it was problems with friends or with schoolwork or with all the clubs I was trying to balance which I’d decided to sign up for...” she laughs, remembering her overly full plate of activities: ”Way too early and way too many!” Lisa helped Joey balance her busy new school life, and proved to be a strong and resilient role model.

”She definitely had that divide of ’I have to tell other proctors or the teachers something that you have told me because it’s not safe and might affect other people,’” says Joey, whose still-full plate includes singing in gospel choir, participating in the all-female step group Precision and indulging her longtime passion for studying Mandarin. ”So if I told her about, say, an incidence of cyber-bullying, whether it was affecting me directly or not, she’d say, ’OK, I have to share this with the other proctors. Thank you for telling me.’ And then as a friend she would say, ’Are you OK? Are your friends OK? How can I help?’ Her being able to be so clear about those two elements of her role, that was really important.”

That ability to take on the mantle of being a big sister and a mentor, of appreciating the vagaries of brand-new boarding school experiences as well as being in a school-sanctioned leadership role, enhances the dorm experience not just for the newbie but for the seniors as well.

”The reason I loved going to Exeter,” Lisa says, ”was for the people and the friendships that you make, and I think the proctor-prep relationship is really special. Coming in as a prep, a lot of things are changing: you’re moving away from home, entering into a totally new environment. New Hampshire is probably a state you never even heard of, and you’re going to this school that’s going to be academically rigorous — the world is suddenly very tumultuous. As a proctor, it’s your job to be the consistent presence, the one thing that’s going to be reliable. You’re there for the times of comfort, and for the times of celebration, too.”

Will Soltas ’18 and proctor Morgan Burrell ’15 at their dorm, Cilley Hall.

In taking on that responsibility, Lisa, now a junior at Yale, gained valuable clarity on her own direction: Previously premed, she is now majoring in the history of science and medicine and hopes to be a science teacher. Her experience as a proctor, together with a recent teaching internship, fueled her new career choice. ”Over the summer,” she says, ”I was working with middle schoolers, mentoring and being a leader and a role model — all those things definitely carried over from being a proctor.” Even when planning to be a doctor, one of her primary goals was to be in a position to mentor and teach others. ”The more I found out about the medical profession, I figured that being a teacher would allow me more space to actually be a mentor, be a leader and invest in younger kids’ lives.”

It’s that mix of commitment, practicality and empathy that underlies Exeter’s proctor-prep relationships. ”You have to be a very grounded person,” Lisa agrees. She noticed right away that Joey, even as a prep, was bubbly, energetic and personable, but was also someone who could get things done. ”You have to be someone who can deal with stress and think on their feet really well, who doesn’t get freaked out very easily, someone who is level-headed. When a crisis happens you have to be able to say, ’Let’s think systematically about what needs to be done in order to solve this problem.’

”You also have to be friendly,” Lisa continues. ”On moving day you have to make sure parents feel comfortable, not just the kids. And you need to be able to communicate well. You’re the conduit between the faculty and the students. Sometimes students may feel that they were wronged by a faculty member, but actually the teacher was right. So you have to be able to put the situation into perspective and explain why the student’s actions may not have been the best decision. That requires a certain amount of gentleness and tact.”

Finding that balance was key for another former proctor, Jonathon Cai ’12. Interacting with younger kids, he says, was definitely a new challenge: ”Everything you do is scrutinized by them on a daily basis. It makes you more self-reflective about things that you say and things that you do.”

Luckily, he had had robust role models of his own; indeed, dorm living turned out to be one of the most salient aspects of his Exeter experience. ”Dorm life was a really surprising aspect of Exeter that I totally didn’t expect,” he says. ”I came into Exeter thinking I was going to be super-academic and that was it. I heard of Exeter through the math program — that’s what piqued my interest in the school — and I envisioned myself slaving away every single day, just working on math problems. That there would be aspects of social support and development, of being part of a community... that wasn’t on my mind when I arrived.”

Cilley life, so communal and supportive, turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. ”I really appreciated my proctors throughout the years,” Jonathon says. ”They were really influential on me. One of them, in particular, Stephen Cobbe, who was a 2011 grad and goes to Stanford now, had a tremendous effect on my life. I didn’t have a dad around when I was growing up, so to be in Cilley and in the presence of all these cool guys was a critical part of my development. There’s a huge age disparity between the seniors and the preps; it’s really quite visible and apparent. And, given that, it’s really a unique kind of space that’s constructed in dorms. In college, it’s not the same — the age difference doesn’t feel so extensive between freshmen and seniors. But between 14- and 17-year-olds, that difference is really evident, and it feeds into the development of yourself as a person. And I think it’s really a positive kind of development.”

Like Lisa, Jonathon, also a junior at Yale and majoring in computer science and math, is eyeing a career in education. ”My time with proctors, and then being a proctor myself, was extremely formative,” he says. ”Aside from personal aspects of my own development, it taught me the ability to take on leadership roles and the ability to be comfortable talking with anyone. It made me the person I am today.”

One of Jonathon’s charges as a proctor was Morgan Burrell ’15, now a proctor in Cilley himself. ”As a prep this place was scary,” Morgan says. ”It was intimidating. It was the kind of with — and I was just in awe, talking and trying to keep up with him and listen to him take on these big ideas. That was huge.”

One of the things Morgan most appreciated was that Jonathon wasn’t at all condescending or judgmental. The discrepancy in their ages was in no way a barrier to either their proctor-prep relationship or to their burgeoning friendship. ”It was such a peer relationship in many ways,” Morgan explains. ”He was an incredibly understanding guy and his relationship with me was one of discussion. He was absolutely someone who would listen to me and would even take my opinion over his own.” Yet there was also the unconditional supportive element, as well as a sense of inclusivity: ”He was like a big brother but never to the point of being a power figure or of abusing his authority.”

It was watching his proctors in action and a desire to take on the mantle of mentorship himself that spurred Morgan to embrace the same role three years later. ”From the first day I met them, I thought, ’I want to be like these guys.’ I just liked who they were in character and how they handled themselves as proctors. What was really amazing was that even when I’d be upset about something that to them must have seemed trivial — I mean, they were seniors applying to college! They didn’t need to worry about how I was doing in a freshman writing seminar! But they would never belittle my struggles and they would say, ’I remember what that was like, that was tough. Here’s some advice. Here’s how you get through it.’”

The other element that influenced Morgan’s desire to be a proctor derives from his vision of a dynamic community. ”I really believe that it’s essential if you value your community to take part in the development of its members. I have kids in my dorm whom I know have the potential to be extraordinary kids, and I can use my experiences and things I’ve learned over the years to help them, guide them and to make their process easier and their final outcome better.”

Morgan already had some of those leadership qualities as a prep, Jonathon recalls, describing how Morgan would take the initiative and go out of his way to form friendships with other preps who were a little quieter, a little more reserved. ”He was always good at drawing people out of their shell,” Jonathon says. ”It was something that I tried to do as a proctor, but it was always great to watch the environment where it was tough to understand where you fit in other than just as preps. The proctors in my dorm were absolutely the biggest part of my coming into my own here at Exeter. [Jonathon], in particular, lived in the room across from mine and I’d be in his room every weekend, whether it was just talking to him about my day, asking about his college application process or even discussing broader subjects as the year went on. He took a class in existentialism and we would discuss the topics he was thinking about — they were pretty philosophical, deep concepts that he was wrestling younger students help each other out, too.”

Morgan, who likes Spanish, mathematics and economics; plays varsity water polo and varsity lacrosse; and taught himself to play guitar, is an Exeter head tour guide who also sits on the Discipline Committee. In his mind, though, those latter two parts of his campus life are distinct from his proctor role: ”As a proctor, I really don’t like to just be that guy who’s constantly laying down the law. I want to be what my proctors were to me: big brothers, helpers, peers, people you could go to whenever you needed something that you couldn’t figure out yourself.”

Morgan’s experience with his proctors is now setting the scene for Will Soltas, a Cilley prep and a recently anointed member of the varsity swim team. ”My brothers came here so I knew this school a little already, but it was definitely a transition,” Will says. ”Morgan helps me with that, providing brotherly security and support. I know I’ve got a place to go if I want to share my concerns — if I’m upset about a math test, I’ll go to him — but he’s also a friend. I spend time chilling in his room, doing homework or just talking.”

So does appreciating Morgan in his proctor role make Will want to do the same? It’s too far off to know, he says, but ”Morgan’s job — creating a kind of buffer system — seems really cool, like he gets to be an older brother to preps and instills traditions in them.” Cilley, Will says, is like a giant family, with gatherings for dorm grills and Halo nights and games of C-Ball, also known as Cilley Ball — ”It’s like tennis” he says, ”but with a dodge ball” — and, for him, that familial feeling extends beyond the formal structure of prep and proctor. ”It’s not just Morgan,” Will says. ”I have one upper on my hall, three lowers and three PGs, and they all offer that buffer system, too, because they all take care of the preps. It’s definitely a comforting environment.”

”It’s really important as you go through Exeter to have people close to you who see you every day, like people do living in a dorm together,” Joey agrees. ”Having an array of ages, someone who’s sharing your new experience with you as well as someone who’s been through it that you can talk to ... that’s important. Then there’s also some people that you might not even know who are there to support you because word travels fast through Exeter. If someone’s having a bad day, sooner or later others will figure it out and ask, ’Are you OK?’ They’ll stop by, maybe bring you some candy. ... It’s hard being here by yourself but in a dorm, it’s good to know that you never have to be alone.”

This shared vision of students being taken under the collective wing of their peers remains intensely familiar, even 30 years down the road. While the more formal structure of the proctor-prep relationship might be at the core of many Exonians’ experiences, it’s part of a larger, wonderfully organic support system that forms the heart and soul of Exeter, a place where so many people, so far from their original homes and families, turn to one another to generate new ones. That sensation, characterized by a generosity toward others that’s forged in kindness, ultimately not only creates long-lasting friendships, but contributes to an understanding of what it means to be part of a larger, thriving community.

”You can always be a better mentor,” Lisa says. ”You can always be a better leader. But you have to start somewhere and Exeter gave me the foundations to shape the sort of leader and community member that I know I’d like to be. Exeter allows you to see what you can aspire to.” .